Birmingham Science Fiction Group

Reviews - Authors L-R

menu
Contact us at bhamsfgroup@yahoo.co.uk
A selection of reviews from our monthly newsletter. These are sorted by the author's or editor's last name. Click on the name at the top of the page to take you to the section or just scroll down the page.
Derek Landy

Ursula LeGuin
Fritz Leiber
Rebecca Levene
Roger Levy
Steve Lewis
Alison Littlewood
James Lovegrove
Stuart B MacBride
John Macken
Ian R MacLeod
John MacLeod
Gail Z Martin
George R R Martin
George R R Martin & Gardner Dozois
Paul J McAuley
Anne McCaffrey
Todd McCaffrey
Jack McDevitt
Ed McDonald
Ian McDonald
Seanan McGuire
Richelle Mead
John Meaney
David Mitchell
L E Modesitt Jr
Richard K Morgan
Linda Nagata
Terry Nation
Vera Nazarian
Emma Newman
Stan Nicholls
Alyson Noël
Naomi Novik
Nnedi Okorafor
Frank Owen
Marion Pitman
Tom Pollock
Terry Pratchett
Christopher Priest
Hannu Rajaniemi
Robert Rankin
Rod Rees
Alastair Reynolds
Adam Roberts
Kim Stanley Robinson
Eric Frank Russell
Ken Russell
Carrie Ryan

Derek Landy

DEMON ROAD by Derek Landy

I'm aware of Derek Landy from the Skullduggery Pleasant books, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so when I heard about DEMON ROAD, I knew I just had to give it a go. Especially when some of the reviews compare it to my favourite TV show, Supernatural.
And the book starts with a bang; "Twelve hours before Amber Lamont's parents tried to kill her, she was sitting between them in the principal's office ..."
She's been called in by Mrs Cobb, because over the last month she has been involved in three altercations, nothing like her normal behaviour. It's clear from the start that Amber is a strong, resilient character and as the quote says, "from the mouths of babes" - Amber's logic and honesty in the face of adversity is honourable. Of course, the adversity isn't what you think - it isn't the threat from Mrs Cobb that's the issue, it's the calm way in which her parents react to Mrs Cobb and decide to 'punish' the principal.
Amber's parents are odd, to say the least. Of course everything starts to make sense when Amber finds herself on the run, and on a hellish road trip on the Demon Road.
As always, Landy's sense of humour shines through the narrative. On this demonic road trip we have the guy with the mysterious and dangerous background (Milo) Glen, the Irish youth exploring America, and Amber. It is through Glen that most of the humour comes through, giving Landy a chance to share his Irish heritage. As for the car the group are travelling in, I can see why the publishers have compared this to Supernatural, as Milo's car has the same amount of personality as Dean's 'Baby' from that series. It's a serious car for a serious dude!
Despite the humour there are also some dark and grim veins running through this book, which add to the overall enjoyment of the novel, from dark characters, to settings, to all manner of creatures, this is immense fun. There's a section of the book, in the town Cascade a Falls, that reads very much like a classic Stephen King novel, but I refuse to say which one because of spoilers.
As well as the aforementioned comedy that is rife through the book, there's also a great deal of poignancy and exploration of what exactly family is and how important family can be. And the end of the adventure is a helluva cliffhanger that means we know Amber has more adventures to come.
Skullduggery was good, but with DEMON ROAD, Landy has outdone himself. A hellishly awesome book.

Reviewed by Theresa Derwin Oct-2015

Return to top

Ursula LeGuin

CHANGING PLANES by Ursula LeGuin

I opened this one with some enthusiasm; after all, LeGuin wrote THE DISPOSSESSED, still in my opinion one of the greatest SF novels of all time (though Mr RGP strongly disagreed at the recent AGM).
The title is a pun and sums up the whole idea in one sentence; if you get really bored and miserable when waiting at an airport, you can slip into some alternative world or another. That’s it; the rest of the book is a series of short and very silly excursions into these other ‘planes’ – one in which the inhabitants don’t speak, one where they are perpetually angry, one in which genetic engineering has gone wild, one where they have a religion, or metaphysics, or delusion that no-one else can understand, and so on.
There is no ‘story’ in the normal sense, and maybe the author is trying to say something about the evils of our world, but I lost patience at the sixth or seventh pointless little tale. The whole thing is a piece of sheer self- indulgence that no publisher would have considered if Mrs LeGuin’s magic name wasn’t attached. This time Rog’s epithet is right; “absolute rubbish!”

Reviewed by Peter Weston Apr-2005

Return to top

Fritz Leiber

FAREWELL TO LANKHMAR by Fritz Leiber

The big, red-bearded barbarian, Fafrd, and the slight, grey-clad swordsman and thief, the Grey Mouser, were fantasy legends of the 1970s. They have been the inspiration for numerous later fantasy heroes, none of which quite match the originals.
Gollancz has reprinted these classics in three volumes instead of the original six. This, Farewell to Lankhmar, is an extra, bringing together the remaining stories. In "Rime Isle" ,the last story o f the previous volume, (Return to Lankhmar in this series, Swords and Ice Magic in the original) the heroes were recruited by Cif and Afreyt, two Rime Islander women, who proved a match for them. When the adventure they were hired to complete was over, Fafrd and the Grey Mouser stayed.
There are four stories in this volume, all of which have been printed elsewhere. Collected her, they form a sequence that is not quite a novel.
In the first, "Sea Magic", the last two Simorgyans decide to reclaim their treasures, which are the sacred icons of the Rime Islanders. They would have succeeded, but Fafrd is drawn to follow Ississi as she flees. In the tussle between them, Fafrd rescues the icons. In "The Mer She" Ississi has a go at the Grey Mouser, who is returning to Rime Isle with a cargo of necessities. He is saved from disaster by his sudden obsession with triple lashing the cargo. This gives the ship sufficient buoyancy to rise to the surface after being dragged under.
In "The Curse of the Smalls and Stars" the two wizards who have sponsored the heroes in the past, decide to try and entice them back to the mainland o f Lankhmar to continue acting as their agents. To this end, they persuade the gods favoured by the heroes, to curse them. Fafrd becomes obsessed with the stars, and Mouser with insignificant things found in gutters. Meanwhile, assassins have been hired to kill the heroes, as previous opponents do not want them returning to the mainland. This story, longer than the previous two, has the touches of humour that made the other novels so enjoyable. "The Mouser goes Below" brings in a number o f characters from previous books and although enjoyable in its own right, is better appreciated if the earlier volumes have been read first.
The plot concerns the wrath o f Loki against the heroes, and without warning, Mouser suddenly sinks into the ground. A frantic digging ensues to rescue him. Fafrd, conversely becomes lighter and floats off into the sky.
Read and enjoy the series, but start with Ill Met in Lankhmar to fully appreciate these legends. This is the weakest book in the series but essential rounding off the heroes lives.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Apr-2000

Return to top

RETURN TO LANKHMAR by Fritz Leiber

Loads of people rave over the Grey Mouser and Fafhrd, the heros of the Lankhmar books. This one includes an introduction by Neil Gaiman where he calls the book ‘an enchanting confection of magic and adventure, funny and witty and sane.’ I don’t know. Somehow I’ve never quite found the magic of Lankhmar, maybe because it’s very much fantasy for guys.
The first half of the book is a short novel about the attempted takeover of Lankhmar by intelligent rats. The second half is a series of interconnected short stories, some of which I feel were only included for completeness.
Um. What can I say? I struggled with this. It was well written but I didn’t much enjoy it. If you like swords n sorcery you might well find the magic I missed.

Reviewed by Yvonne Rowse Feb-2000

Return to top

Rebecca Levene

SMILER’S FAIR (Hollow Gods 1) by Rebecca Levene

Many years ago, the Sun Goddess defeated the Moon God who died. The Moon God’s remaining followers were driven mad and exist now as the homicidal and dreaded Worm Men. Destroyed by sunlight, they were forced underground. Permanent structures or large groups of people attract their attention and they will emerge to create havoc. Adapting to this has meant that most large settlements are now mobile, with large floating towns towed slowly around lakes or travelling groups who settle for days and then move on at the first death. The eponymous SMILER’S FAIR is a large peripatetic carnival that sells all varieties of goods and entertainments. In the story it serves various roles; a home, a meeting place and the location of major events.
At the start of the story, a new-born prince is smuggled away from the father who would kill him to prevent a prophecy. It soon becomes clear that this child will become the re-born Moon god. The main action then takes place some years later as the child is maturing into manhood. The story is multi-stranded as we get to know various characters including: Krish, (the maltreated goatherd and unknowing prince), Nethmi (married unhappily to seal an alliance), Dae Hyo (a drunken warrior of a decimated tribe), Eric (a young male prostitute) and Rii (a giant sentient bat enslaved by the Sun goddess’ acolytes). Their lives and actions gradually move them towards Smiler’s Fair, where a hunted Krish will start to come into his powers and moon magic begins to return to the world.
This book is a bit of a “Marmite” book. I am sure that there are many fans of traditional fantasy who will enjoy this. However I struggled with this book. It is easy enough to read and the story flows along at a reasonable pace. I think my difficulties are with the characters, who I found lacked depth. Many of them do bad things, which is not necessarily a problem even for “heroes”, but these actions seem to have little emotional effect on them. They felt a little too much like archetypes rather than fully fleshed-out characters. Also, if we are supposed to feel that the Sun Goddess is bad and the Moon God good, then not enough is done to establish where our sympathies should lie. If you want a straightforward unchallenging fantasy then this may suit but I prefer authors who add far more complexity to their characters such as Robin Hobb and her excellent Farseer series.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Sep-2015

Return to top

Roger Levy

RECKLESS SLEEP by Roger Levy

At some time in the unspecified future the survivors of a failed colonisation attempt have returned to a world devastated by vulcanism. In this dystopian England, where the forces of law and order barely maintain control, people eke out a precarious existence from which virtual reality games offer some kind of escape. Jon Seiler, one o f the survivors, becomes involved with a project to develop a bigger and better game but finds that the project seems already to have taken the life of his best friend and looks likely to kill him as well unless he can discover the secret agenda in time.
The foregoing summary is hardly sufficient to do justice to a very complex book. The plot unfolds gradually, layer by layer, and everything is eventually worked out and explained as various early incidents assume a significance which could scarcely have been foreseen on first encounter. It also displays considerable originality, despite the fact that as I worked my way through the story I found myself identifying several books I knew from which Levy seemed to have derived some of his ideas.
This is not to say that it is plagiaristic - far from it - and considering that it is a first novel, Reckless Sleep is a very considerable achievement.
However, I came to the end undecided as to how much I had enjoyed it. It had held my interest throughout and I had been anxious to get to the end and discover what had really been going on, but when I did find out I felt that ultimately the book was a bit too complicated for its own good.
Nevertheless, I recommend it and would definitely say that further work from this new writer will be worth looking out for. Michael Jones

Reviewed by Apr-2000

Return to top

Steve Lewis

ONCE BITTEN edited by Steve Lewis

Too many authors have been asked, by non-writers, where their inspiration comes from. There is never just one answer. It can be from anything – a piece of music, an overheard conversation, a newspaper report. Many will tell you that writing is about hard work rather than inspiration, but the initial spark, the starting point has to come from somewhere. In the case of this volume, the starting point was the art work. Theresa Derwin, the instigator of Once Bitten, saw the painting by Stephen Cooney and thought it would make the ideal cover for a horror anthology. The fifteen stories that finally ended up between the covers all have a theme of love or obsession. There is a very fine line between the two, and there is always a problem when the object of desire doesn’t return the affection.
The two stories that are most memorable in this volume are ‘Housebound’ by Jacob Prytherch and ‘Mama’s Boy’ by Steven Chapman. In the first, Tom Harper is the object of desire and she is very jealous. He cannot leave his house. All his groceries are ordered online. It is the house itself which loves him, and will kill intruders to keep him. The second has similarities. In this case it is Roger, a postman, who is the prisoner, but he is being kept in the basement by a woman who treats him as though he were her baby.
In some stories, the obsession doesn’t always become apparent until the end as in ‘Paper Frog’ by Martin Nike. A meeting on the train between Donald and Suzy develops nicely especially as he realises that she can read minds. The other significant characters are well drawn but the end of this particular story is disappointingly rushed and confused.
The brief for these stories didn’t confine the writer to contemporary horror and SF and fantasy scenarios have been exploited. ‘To The End Of Love’ by Elle Joyce is a future setting where civilisation has suddenly broken down. There is no explanation but none is needed. In fleeing from an exploitative man, Gina falls, literally, into a safe house. Marax is willing to keep her safe in exchange for experiences he cannot otherwise have via the use of a drug. Here, both the drug and love are addictive. It is a well-executed piece of writing. ‘Love Bites’ by Nic Martin is also set in a civilisation which is disintegrating. When Tom is bitten on the way home from shopping he becomes ill and Deb loves him too much to carry out the necessary mercy stroke the media tells her she ought. These stories, despite similarities, have strengths in different areas and are good counterpoints to each other.
‘Oblivion Is The Sweetest Word’ by John R Fultz is the only story that actually uses the cover image as the focus. It is a fantasy in which Taizo the thief is promised great riches to acquire the venom of the sacred spiders of Ghoth. He falls in love with one of the local girls, a love that is doomed by tradition and by what he later discovers. Not only does it match the cover but it is also well crafted.
Myth is always a good source for stories. Unfortunately, too many are just retellings without adding anything to the myth. No so in the case of ‘Thrill Of The Chase’ by N O A Rawle. It starts shakily but gains strength as the narrator gains confidence. It works on the premise that there are monsters living amongst us, in this case a lamia. She wants to fit in to human society but her true nature is always likely to surface.
The eight other stories all have something that gives them a touch of originality. Not all of them are brilliantly executed – they may start heavily and improve towards the end, or do not have clear enough endings. Ambiguity is fine in a story, so is surrealism but confusion lets it down.
All the stories have a horrific or macabre element to them and if you enjoy that kind of story, there will be something here to like.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Aug-2016

Return to top

Alison Littlewood

THE HIDDEN PEOPLE by Alison Littlewood

We like to think we live in a rational world, but irrational beliefs still lie close to the surface. Animal shelters that can’t re-home black cats as people consider them “unlucky” and the recent hysterical reaction to “scary clowns” are only a couple of examples. The horrific consequences of one such belief is the central theme of this novel.
In the middle of the 19th century, a young man leaves behind his comfortable life in the city to see to the affairs of his pretty young cousin. She has been killed in a dreadful way by her husband who apparently believed she was a fairy changeling. (This central incident and the inspiration for the novel is based upon a real event). Feeling that his family have neglected his poorer relation, and with an unrecognised romantic fixation with her, the protagonist wants to understand and uncover the events and reasons which led to her death. When he arrives in the small rural village where she lived, he finds an almost universal belief in the existence of changelings, the Fairy folk and their interference in the lives of people who attract their attention.
When he moves into her “unlucky” cottage, halfway up the fairy hill, he finds himself drawn into this miasma of superstition. What seems easy to believe in the city, bounded by iron railways and modern machines is much harder to hold onto in the “endless summer” of the village. When he is joined by his young, newly pregnant wife, the stage is set for another tragedy as he also struggles to understand her apparently “changed” behaviour in this new environment.
This is a wonderfully atmospheric novel. There is an excellent attention to detail in this book. The careful consideration that has been paid to the vocabulary and style of the prose, so that it is appropriate to the Victorian setting, yet still being eminently readable is exceptional. There was an added verisimilitude to me in that many of the old superstitions were reminiscent of those some of my older relatives held – eg not wearing green because it was the fairies’ colour, or not walking through a fairy ring. The contrast between the new rational, industrial world of the city and the older, unchanged and superstitious countryside is well done without being heavy-handed. The author keeps the narrator, and the reader reeling (like the Fairy dancing road in the book) between whether to believe the superstitious or the more mundane and rational explanations of his cousin’s death. As he digs deeper into village life and the circumstances surrounding his cousin’s death, the story builds to a climax, and the true cleverness of this story becomes more apparent. The reader becomes more and more intrigued as to who the actual hidden people are? Do the fairies exist or does the belief both engender and conceal more human motives and wickedness?
When I started this novel, I expected a fairly straightforward dark fantasy but the book has far more depth to it than that. I loved the difficult balancing act that the author credibly maintains throughout the book and the complexities of character in the narrator and his wife in particular. It is not a gruesome horror book, apart from one somewhat graphic but justifiable scene at the beginning so would suit many who like intelligent, well-written fiction with some fantasy elements.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Dec-2016

Return to top

James Lovegrove

PROVENDER GLEED by James Lovegrove

I wonder sometimes that people write science fiction. It’s said that it’s a declining market that doesn’t make as much money as it used to. So why should someone write an SF novel when they’d probably make more from a regular thriller? This is a good case in point. As a thriller it has all the right moves: the plot moves fast enough and the characters are (mostly) solid and believable.
Then there’s this ‘alternate world’ thing. The idea is that sometime during the Renaissance several trading families took over effective control of the world and have been passing down that power along lines of primogeniture (firstborn son) ever since. Technology is somehow changed - they still have airships, there’s a secure tram system for the privileged and lower classes live in tower blocks. It all feels a bit hokey. I can’t help but wonder why it was put in. I don’t believe the history would hold up to scrutiny – think of how often the throne of any country has passed from father to son (many times it doesn’t). This world does have elected governments but their members rely so much on the support of the ‘Families’ that they have little real power. Think of it as a more obvious version of corporate sponsorship. Apart from the odd item, this never really interferes with the plot.
The problem with reviewing this kind of thriller is that it’s so easy to reveal too much of the plot. Provender Gleed is the grandson of the head of the most powerful family in England. Since he is the eldest son of the eldest son, he is being pressured to find a wife to continue the line. Then he is kidnapped.
Although we know from the start who the kidnappers are, we aren’t told who is really behind it. Who is the ‘inside man’? Maybe it’s the actor cousin who is desperately short of money. Has he been paid off by a rival family?
The head of the Gleed family has hired ‘Milner & Moore, Anagrammatic Detectives’ to find his missing grandson. Do they really have a chance of success? Why would anyone think they did? Are they just comic relief, or a chance for the writer to exercise his fascination with anagrams? Believe it or not, there is a good explanation.
Lovegrove has shown that he is capable of writing a good thriller but, on this showing, I wouldn’t rate him on his ‘science fiction’.

Reviewed by William McCabe Nov-2005

Return to top

Stuart B MacBride

HALFHEAD by Stuart B MacBride

This is the first foray into science fiction by a prolific crime/thriller writer Stuart MacBride (note no initial ‘B’). His noir crime novels are set in Aberdeen and feature a gritty and much put-upon detective sergeant Logan McRae whose efforts in solving a number of high profile and sometimes horrendous cases are not recognised or appreciated by his superiors. This book, written in his normal lively if occasionally gruesome style, is set in a relatively near future with the action (and I do mean action) taking place in Glasgow. To be specific, in its vast and deprived south side connurb blocks, these are always set to explode at the least provocation. They were, eleven years ago, the scene of the VR (virtual reality) riots in which 3 million people died. At the same time similar riots transformed the United States from a superpower to a third world state. In this world perpetrators of major crimes are surgically mutilated on conviction, losing their lower jaw, and are lobotomised before being sent out by the State to do menial jobs in the community in order that everyone can see what happens when you break the law. These are the ‘halfheads’. One of these, Dr Fiona Westfield, who was one of the most prolific serial killers Glasgow has ever seen, is waking up and she wants revenge, particularly on William Hunter who was instrumental in her arrest and conviction. Since then he has been promoted to the rank of Assistant Network Director. The Network is a type of special police force/paramilitary organisation dealing with major crimes. The book follows these two over the period of Dr Westwood’s awakening. Extra spice is provided by the machinations of a powerful and rogue extra government organisation. There are a good number of strong secondary and minor support characters seamlessly interwoven throughout this action-packed story. This story has a start, middle and a strong and clear end, which still leaves open the possibility of a sequel. If you like noir crime/thriller novels both HALFHEAD and the Logan McRae books take some beating and are strongly recommended. For once I agree with the quotes on the jacket, i.e. “Compelling” (SFX) and “Slick, gruesome and brutally intelligent. This is bare knuckles thriller writing” (Michael Marshall).

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Oct-2010

Return to top

John Macken

BREAKING POINT by John Macken

This is the third book featuring ex CID detective and forensic scientist Reuben Maitland who has been sacked form his post as head of GeneCrime the elite UK forensics centre.
Why he has been sacked is not made clear, but is alluded to as being due to using GeneCrime laboratory resources for conducting his own research. Although sacked he is still carrying out research into the use of DNA in behavioural profiling and has covert assistance from a few old GeneCrime colleagues. He has identified that there are five aberrant genes that make a person likely to be a psychopath. The more of these one has, the higher the potential for violence. To help identify these persons from their DNA, he has created a system he calls Psychopath Selection.
Reuben’s temporary replacement, Mina Ali, discovers that a data base of the DNA profiles of persons excluded from enquiries has become rather large and has been
moved to an unexpected position in the IT system. She also finds that it has been recently searched. This information is brought to the attention of the apparently new head of GeneCrime, a DCI Sarah Hirst without any great impact. Later on she provided these profiles to Reuben who identifies that seven of them are potential psychopaths. It is also identified that six of these persons have recently become victims of violent crime and the seventh has committed a violent murder (described in the opening chapter) on apparently very little provocation. Reuben decides to contact these persons and inform them of the aberrant nature of their DNA and their potential for extreme violence, beseeching them to try to remain calm no matter how provoked. One of these persons is a violent criminal with whom Reuben has crossed swords in the past. The provocation that he undergoes leads to a campaign of violence with Reuben being one of its victims.
At the same time, London is being terrorised by a serial killer who strikes on underground trains without leaving any trace. The mounting body count leads to panic and traffic chaos as passengers shun the use of the Underground. GeneCrime is puzzled as to the cause of death. Unknown to Reuben his actions in trying to help these potential psychopaths leads to a traumatic clash with the Underground Killer.
It is quite obvious that this is the third book in a series as there are many things left unsaid or taken for granted in its first half. For instance, early on the GeneCrime staff holds a wake to which Reuben is invited. But who has died is not made clear until halfway through the book: how he died never is. As a result I found the book initially unsatisfying, but as I progressed came to enjoy it more and more. I would strongly recommend that to get the most out of the book the other two in the series are read first. Is it science fiction?
Probably but only because (to the best of my knowledge) the GeneCrime laboratory does not exist and neither does Reuben’s Psychopath Selection system.

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Jan-2010

Return to top

Ian R MacLeod

THE HOUSE OF STORMS by Ian R MacLeod

The basic premise behind this novel makes it an original, alternate world fantasy. The level of technology is very similar to that in our own Victorian era.
The difference is that a substance called aether holds things together and makes the machines work. It is a kind of elemental magic. MacLeod explored the idea first in his novel THE LIGHT AGES and he handles the technological side of his creation very well. The problem is the plot, especially at the beginning. It has the makings of a Victorian melodrama.
Alice Meynell is a woman who has slept her way to the top. She is now married to the greatgrandmaster of the Guild of Telegraphers and still has ambitions. Her son, Ralph, is suffering from TB and she brings him to Invercombe in North Devon to die. Instead he survives and forms a liaison with a shore-girl that Alice has hired as a maid at the house. They plan to elope to the Fortunate isles (West Indies) but Alice finds out and puts a stop to it. Ralph is sent to the academy to learn his trade before being married off to a suitable woman, not knowing that Marion, the maid, has given birth to his child.
The plot becomes more original after this as the East and West of Britain indulge in a bloody civil war. There are actually three stories worth telling here, that of Alice Meynell, especially her use of aether to achieve her ambitions, of Marion Price who becomes a rallying cry for the Western forces due to her Florence Nightingale-like activities, and of Klade who is the son of Ralph and Marion and is brought up among people deformed by aether poisoning. Each of these characters could easily have been given a book of their own and they could have been developed to a greater depth. The pages of exposition could have been expanded and more immediate. There is a bigger work here that has been squashed into one volume. I do not often advocate trilogies, but in this case, the story would have benefited from that kind of treatment.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Dec-2005

Return to top

John MacLeod

DYNASTY by John MacLeod

Subtitled ‘The Stuarts 1560 - 1807’ I wondered why this had come through my door. Not SF at all but pretty good for all that.
Having given up history and geography quite early at school to study sciences and fail calamitously at languages, I’m well aware that there are huge chunks of British history that I’ve missed. This book has filled in quite a piece for me in an entertaining and interesting fashion.
Of course, it always helps for me if the characters are believable. I’m not sure that the Stuarts are believable. As in Slow Lightning, it is constantly amazing to watch characters completely bugger up their lives, which is what the Stuarts seemed to do best. What an unhappy, unlucky, idiotic bunch they were. Well worth a look, although the price is a bit worrying.
I mean I know it’s pretty sad to look back to when I could buy a book for one and six but £8.99 seems to be the next step up.

Reviewed by Yvonne Rowse Apr-2000

Return to top

Gail Z Martin

DEADLY CURIOSITIES by Gail Z Martin

Cassidy Kincaide is owner of “Trifles and Folly” an auction and antiques shop in haunted Charleston, South Carolina. Behind the veneer of buying and selling antiques is her real job; getting supernatural objects off the market and tucked away safely. It's the perfect job for Cassidy, because she's not just a history buff, she's a psychometric who can read the emotions in objects and hear voices or see images. Teag also works at the shop with Cassidy and has his own powerful magic, often playing bodyguard to Cassidy. There's also silent partner and vampire Sorren (over 600 years old and a member of the Alliance) who deals with the supernatural item to neutralise it. And Sorren is worried, because amidst the everyday work of haunted opera glasses and other miscellanea, something big, and bad is coming.
“Gardenia Landing B&B” is also having problems with some haunted items so Cassidy is invited for a short stay to investigate. The city of Charleston is rife with a bloody history of slavery and piracy, so there's plenty to occupy Cassidy on the supernatural scale. In the theatre, viewing the world through the haunted opera glasses, we get to see interesting snippets of history as Cassidy is thrown into flashbacks. And as the story progresses, Cassidy's flashbacks are used to good effect to build up the tension and the mystery behind the haunted objects.
I enjoyed this book from the off. Apart from the fact it's Urban Fantasy, which I love, Martin has a strong authorial voice and will be known to fans of SFF. Cassidy is a strong, vibrant character and her visions are seamless and engaging. Add to that that every object has its own inherent history and it makes for an exciting concoction. The narrative is laced with a wry sense of humour despite the gruesome nature of some of the artefacts and some of the death scenes (this is not for the faint hearted). Martin has also obviously done her research when it comes to the artefacts which imbue the novel with a terrific sense of atmosphere. The magic used in the book varies from supernatural, to psychic to Vodoun making for an eclectic mix. It is clear that Martin has created an intriguing world and characters that would make for a great series, akin to the Jim Butcher Dresden Files. This book will definitely appeal to fans of that series as well as the Sookie Stackhouse books.
All in all a solid and enjoyable addition to the genre by a strong author.

Reviewed by Theresa Derwin Jan-2015

Return to top

VANITIES (A Deadly Curiosities Adventure Book 1) by Gail Z Martin

Following on from Martin's very enjoyable first adventure comes a new adventure narrated by vampire Sorren, which starts with the tantalising line, “I was dead when I first saw Antwerp. The year was 1565."
This short novella finds Sorren arriving in Antwerp with his vampire maker Alard, after being a petty thief in Bruges. Now, here he is, entering Antwerp a much improved thief and an immortal, ready for one of their biggest jobs. From the docks, Alard and Sorren proceed to an antiques and curios shop “Vanities”, meeting mortal manager Carel. Sorren is to steal a brooch, but as with the previous objects and artefacts in the original novel, all antiquities have a power, a supernatural resonance and as such, the brooch is dangerous.
Although on the short side, this is a great introduction into the history of the Alliance and Sorren himself. There's adventure, bloodshed, humour and poignancy. These short adventures and the debut novel itself make me want to read more from this series.

Reviewed by Theresa Derwin Jan-2015

Return to top

VENDETTA (Deadly Curiosities 2) by Gail Z Martin

“Trifles and Folly” isn't your average antique store. Cassidy Kincaide, the current owner of Trifles and Folly has had the store in her family for over three hundred years, in haunted Charleston, South Carolina. In the first book she discovers the store's real purpose, and her destiny. It's her job to keep magical curios and antiques safe from the public. Sometimes a jewellery box is just that, and sometimes it houses a blood-sucking demon. Either way, it's a dangerous job, but someone has to do it, and it appears that someone is Cassidy and her employee, Teag. She also works with her silent partner, Sorren, a six-hundred-year old vampire with a few powers of his own. Think a quaint, old-fashioned version of the TV series,Warehouse 13.
To help her with her job, Cassidy's talent is psychometry, the ability to read objects through touch. When Cassidy touches the latest acquisition, the emotions are rife. Martin is expert at filling in the gaps and creating the mystery to progress the story through Cassidy's visions; sights, sounds, feelings, atmosphere. It's all here. And each artefact is a little glimpse into history, and a case for the Trifles team to solve. Cassidy is literally plunged into the past as the person who owned the object narrates their death and the circumstances surrounding it; moving and engaging stuff.
Emerging, shaking and upset from her vision, Cassidy tells Teag the bad news. There is a ghost attached to the jewellery box. But that's not the bad news. It's the wraith that eats ghosts, now in the most haunted city in North America that's the problem. And something even bigger is on its way.
Cassidy has an interesting cast of characters to assist her in her endeavours. Teag himself is a Weaver, who can weave magic into fabric or find out anything by weaving information on the web. Lucinda is a Voodun mambo (root worker) who can offer protection through herbs and channel Baron Samedi. Valerie is a medium who runs the local ghost tour, Chuck is a retired Supernatural Black Ops Agent, Bo is the ghost of her dead dog and Father Anne is a tattooed and powerful priest who frees spirits helping them into the next world. Amidst the urban fantasy fare, the adventure, intrigue and humour, there is darkness galore and even a Lovecraftian vein. We also get to know Sorren a little better, and that knowledge is poignant.
Martin doesn't shy away from the darker history of the South, being open and honest about slavery and the like. Her cast of characters is also wonderfully diverse including sexuality, race and colour. Martin is also adept at handling exposition and back story through conversation with other characters that feels natural.
There are a lot of battles and blood in this novel and a few losses along the way, which makes the final showdown with the 'big bad' all the more dramatic and fraught with tension. Cassidy, Sorren, Teag and the rest of the team fight well together, but their adversary is strong. Will they survive intact? That's not for me to tell. What I will say though, is it’s one helluva finale and this book had me gripped from start to finish.
Great characters, brilliant back story, emotional resonance, big bad monsters and a multitude of magic. This blockbuster of a book has it all. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Theresa Derwin Feb-2016

Return to top

George R R Martin

A STORM OF SWORDS by George R R Martin

In book three of this fantasy series, George R.R. Martin grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. After the first two books 'A Game Of Thrones’ and ’A Clash Of Kings’ the plot line still twist and turns with the freshness that so few writers can sustain for such a length of time. As the Guardian reviewer stated Its ambition to construct the Twelve Caesar’s of fantasy fiction, with characters so venomous they could eat the Borgias’. All I can say is move over Hannibal (The cannibal) Lector you’re a non-starter by comparison.
With the House Lannister in control of the south, the King of the North Robb Stark is holding his own against his enemies, but seemingly making little progress in wresting the crown from Joffrey Baratheon the first, son of King Robert I Baratheon but born of an incestuous relationship between Queen Cirsei and her twin brother Jaime Lannister. To the far north beyond ‘The Wall’ ancient enemies are stirring which could spell the end for all the warring Houses. The defenders of The Wall and thereby the defenders of the peoples to the south are not the force that they used to be, with the numbers in their ranks dwindling and made up from the dregs and prisoners that have managed to escape the hangman’s noose. Into this rich brew are thrown the Houses that have their own agenda in backing other claimants to the Iron Throne. If things could not get worse to the East the last survivor of Aerys II Targaryen, King of the Iron Throne killed by Robert I Bartheon is raising an army to retake the Iron Throne. With the political intrigue and marriages of convenience to cement alliances between the major Houses the minor Houses are seizing their chances to fill the power vacuum left by the warring factions.
George R.R. Martin has received high praise from many reviewers for this series and I can only add my congratulations for an epic fantasy series that I can't wait to read book four. A Song Of Ice And Fire I’m sure will go down as one of the all-time great series of Fantasy fiction this has, to quote one reviewer, superbly developed characters, accomplished prose and sheer bloodymindedness.
Also the vicious sting in the tail of A Storm Of Swords is one that comes as a total surprise to the reader. A must have series for all readers of Fantasy or Science Fiction!!

Reviewed by Chris Chivers Dec-2000

Return to top

George R R Martin & Gardner Dozois

SONGS OF THE DYING EARTH: Stories in honour of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin & Gardner Dozois

Rog may still remember that meeting of the ‘old’ Brum group in 1963 when Cliff Teague showed me the newly published Lancer paperback of Jack Vance’s THE DYING EARTH. It was already the stuff of legend since it had previously only appeared in a old 1950 Hillman Books edition and was long out of print. Instantly I shot out of Charlie Winstone’s front room and caught a bus to the newsagent up the road who, fortunately for me, was still open, and even more fortunately, had one last copy on his rack. I was thrilled just to hold the book in my hands; it was wonderful, evocative stuff. Everybody thinks so.
But THE DYING EARTH is a hard act to follow and even Vance himself couldn’t quite manage to do it with the much later Cugel series. So, were other writers able to capture the same magic in this ‘tribute’ volume?
Most of the stories are set in familiar Vance locations (Almery, Ascolais, and so on) with established characters like the wizard T’sais, the witch Lith, even Cugel himself. They are told in the same overtly formal, archaic language, and in some cases even develop a tale from the original volume; for instance, Mike Resnick provides a clever prequel to “Liane the Wayfarer” while Phyllis Eisenstein offers a mannered sequel. The whole book has been put together in this way; twenty-two stories each trying to take us back to Vance’s world of the dying Earth.
They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but I don’t know. It seems tome that there’s still something missing, some intangible quality. It might be Vance’s sly wit, or the incredibly careful way he selected his words to convey exactly the right shade of meaning. It’s a style which looks easy to mimic but I don’t think it is, and most of the authors represented here can’t pull it off; some of them come nowhere near.
Vance’s stories were written by a young, talented writer just commencing his professional life, bringing qualities of freshness and originality and heart-felt meaning. By comparison these have been turned out to order and for the most part are derivative and stale. Some are feeble and over-long, others are just silly. And by the end of the book I was starting to feel that I’d really had more than enough of the Dying Earth. So – not recommended!

Reviewed by Peter Weston Jan-2010

Return to top

Paul J McAuley

ANCIENTS OF DAYS: The Second Book of Confluence by Paul J McAuley

McAuley's novels are not for the lazy reader. A deceptively simple
plot is lavishly embedded in the product of a fertile imagination. Ancients Of Days is the sequel to Child of the River in which Yama began his quest to discover his bloodline.
Confluence is a planetoid, dominated by a huge river. The people populating its length are descended from genetically moderated animals and the world is kept stable by machines. Yet no-one of Yama's bloodline seems to exist - they were the Builders who have long since vanished. On his journey, Yama is pursued by those who wish to use his abilities in the war currently raging against the Heretics, for Yama has discovered that he can communicate with and reprogram machines.
As Yama learns more about his situation and the history that led to the evolution of Confluence, so does the reader.
Sometimes, the information confirms what has been suspected, at others, it adds a new dimension. At the same time, it is the adventures of a youth growing into manhood. With this book, be prepared to be dazzled by the prose, wonder at the breadth of creation and work at the subtleties of the plot complexities. Pauline Morgan

Reviewed by Jan-2000

Return to top

MIND'S EYE by Paul J McAuley

If you put fifty people in a room and ask them to define science fiction, you will get fifty different suggestions. Ultimately, if both the questions, ‘Is it fiction?’ and ‘Does it include science?’ can be answered in the affirmative, then the writing in question is science fiction.
In his novel WHOLE WIDE WORLD. Paul McAuley took a concept that is already part of our daily lives, the internet, and extrapolated only a small way into the future to create a detective thriller that had all the excitement that readers of both science fiction and modern thrillers demand of their literature. In MIND’S EYE, McAuley is edging even closer to now. The US Army is still policing the situation in Iraq. The date could be anytime between last year and sometime in the next five. The political situation in the Middle East is relevant only in that it triggers the action of the novel and has a bearing on the direction the plot takes towards the end.
Alfie Flowers is a photographer but is the first to acknowledge that he is not as good as his father. Mick Flowers died somewhere in the Middle East soon after Alfie’s tenth birthday. The year before this, Alfie’s grandfather had died.
After the funeral, Alfie had taken a roll of paper from a hidden compartment in his deck, along with a pouch of grey powder. Alfie presumes that he tasted some of the powder and looked at the image on the paper. He doesn’t remember but since then he has suffered from epileptic fits. It has also made him sensitive to a certain type of pattern.
More than twenty years later, Alfie spots a piece of graffito on a restaurant window that makes his mind tingle. The frame of the anti-American image is a pattern of dots and dashes. Thinking that the artist, who signs himself Morph, could lead him to a solution to the problem that has dogged him since he looked at his grandfather’s paper, he decides to track down Morph. He enlists his friend, Toby Brown to help. As a reporter, Toby can get publicity for Morph which might bring him out into the open.
Alfie is not the only one interested in Morph. Harriet Crowley is a secret service agent. She also recognises the pattern Morph is using. Her grandfather and Alfie’s were colleagues and archaeologists. It was their excavations that originally uncovered the glyphs and recognised their significance. Harriet’s father had used the information to involve people in a cult set-up that went drastically wrong. Harriet also knows that Carver Soborin and Rölf Most are looking for Morph. Having obtained information about the glyphs and the drug from Harriet’s father they had tried to use them for commercial gain in Africa. The results had been horrific. Harriet wants to find Morph before they do and prevent them using them. She suspects they are looking for information to lead them to the original source.
To most people, the glyphs are just interesting patterns. To others, exposed to the drug they induce mental disturbances and can have psychological effects. Morph is using a fascination glyph which attracts attention to the cartoon it frames. After several deaths of people who have known Morph, Harriet and Alfie pool their resources. The trail takes them to the Kurdish region of Turkey, and then to Iraq.
This is a fast-paced thriller driven by the various needs of the characters.
Though the science element is small, it is significant, being the cause of the situations all of them find themselves in. MIND’S EYE will appeal equally to those who enjoy the Indiana Jones kind of adventure, as well as those who value good literature and a well told story.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Aug-2005

Return to top

SOMETHING COMING THROUGH by Paul J McAuley

Themes in Science Fiction tend to go in cycles. It is not just new writers or those from mainstream literature who are venturing into the field, thinking they have invented something totally new (and haven’t). In these cases, the book has to be exceptional for them to be excused the fact that they are ignorant of the history of the genre. When experienced writers who have a deep grounding of their craft and knowledge of what has gone before, take up a theme that has lain by the wayside for a long time it is worth taking note. Then when several well established writers publish books with similar themes in a short space of time, you start looking for the source of the synchronicity. Sometimes there is a trigger, at other times it is not obvious.
Here the theme in question is the arrival of aliens who offer technological gifts without first stating what they want in return. In 1964, Murray Leinster gave us THE GREKS BRING GIFTS and later Arthur C. Clarke produced CHILDHOOD’S END. By this time we should have realised that it was likely to end in tears as the citizens of Ancient Troy found out when they dragged the wooden horse into their city. However free something appears, there is always a catch. Then at the end of last year, Greg Bear published WAR DOGS (reviewed in Newsletter #520 – January 2015). Now we have Paul McAuley’s SOMETHING COMING THROUGH. Both have aliens appearing on Earth (before the start of the novel) and offering advanced technology. In neither case do the human governments spurn the gifts. In the former, Earth forces become engaged in a war on Mars against other aliens, in the latter, humans are given the technology and access to fifteen planets that they can colonise. These planets have had previous tenants. There is a good trade in smuggling Elder artefacts to Earth. Some of the artefacts are infected with eidolons, a kind of ghost that can alter the mind it interacts with.
The plot follows two different but overlapping strands. On Earth, Chloe Millar has a reputation for being able to spot the break-outs of aberrant behaviour caused by eidolons. She follows up a lead to a meeting of a burgeoning religious cult and finds Fahad, a youth who is obsessively drawing the same image, one that can be identified as an Elder site on Mangala, the planet where a bead in his sister’s bracelet came from. Ada Monrange is a very powerful and wealthy woman who is interested in finding technology not supplied by the Jackaroo – the beneficent aliens. She arranges for Chloe and Fahad to be smuggled onto Mangala to see what they can discover. This needs to be done without the Jackaroo knowing.
Meanwhile, on Mangala, policeman Vic Gayle has a murder to solve. The corpse has been shot with what appears to be a ray-gun (source and technology unknown). There were two killings some time previously using the same method but he was unable to find the evidence that his chief suspect was guilty. The trail of incidents and bodies lead him in the same direction that Chloe and Fahad are travelling.
The story is cleverly told with enough time separation between the two strands so that although the reader is playing catch-up they are ultimately able to complete the picture before the characters do. There are always coincidences in a novel such as this but without them there would be no complexity to the plot. Paul McAuley has finesse in his writing which is why I prefer this over the Greg Bear.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Apr-2015

Return to top

Anne McCaffrey

The Tower and the Hive by Anne McCaffrey

What Anne McCaffrey started with ‘The Rowan' back in 1990 has taken nearly a decade to complete with this the fifth book in the series and it has not lost any of its strength in story telling over the years.
The first book in the series introduced us to the FT&T of Earth, a group of people with Psi powers and the shout of help from the humans on Deneb who are being attacked by an unknown alien race. With the defeat of the Hive‘s invasion of Deneb, the stage was set for the dynastic tale of the Rowan and her husband Jeff Raven and the next generations of the Raven clan. Also fighting the Hive, are the Mrdini who’s worlds have been attacked for generations, and when contact is made between the Mrdini and Humans The Star League Alliance is eventually formed. With the battle being taken to the Hive rather than simply defending against their incursions Humans and Mrindi start to trace the source of the Hives home world.
The following books in the series, Damia, Damia’s Children and Lyon’s Pride written over the following four years chart the growth of the FT&T as well as the swelling numbers of the major clans within the organisation. The fight to control the Hives incursions into the Star League Alliance continues unabated. The young of both species being brought up together strengthen the bond between the Humans and Mrdini. As the Star League Alliance expands the search for more Telepaths and Tele-kinetics to help communications and the flow of trade between worlds is an ongoing headache for Jeff Raven ‘Earth Prime’.
In this the fifth book of the series ‘The Tower And The Hive’ the search for worlds that have been colonised by the Hive goes on, but during the quest, subtle differences between the Hive Queens is noticed. Also that the Hive sphere’s don’t always pick what the Human Mrindi alliance consider suitable worlds to colonise. The search for the answers and a possible way to control the Hive is an elusive question to answer. As well as this quest for knowledge concerning the Hive there is murmuring’s of discontent from certain elements within the FT&T who are not related to the prime talents within the organisation and have not received the power that they think is rightfully theirs.
Once again Anne McCaffrey has produced a novel that shows no signs of her imagination flagging. To intersperse a series of five books spanning a decade with other great works of Science Fiction is truly amazing. The freshness of each novel in the series goes without question, and this is a must for all the Anne McCaffrey fans out there.

Reviewed by Chris Chivers Sep-2000

Return to top

The fifth book and advertised as the last in the sequence that started with The Rowan. Very much a sequel with characters carrying forward such that reading previous books is a necessity. The heroes and heroines are psionics showing they are the best. The transportation of spaceships is by teleportation assisted with mechanical energy and communication is by messages sent the same way or by telepathy. This makes the universe small enough that any character can interact with any other. A comfortable read in the style of a soap but aiming for the grandeur of space opera.
Reviewed by Anne Woodford Aug-2000

Return to top

Todd McCaffrey

DRAGONHEART by Todd McCaffrey

Some concepts seem to endure. The Dragonriders of Pern and their adventures have that quality. Created originally by Anne McCaffrey in 1968, the telepathic dragons have gained a huge following. After several collaborations with his mother, Todd McCaffrey has taken on the mantle.
DRAGONHEART is set five hundred and seven years after the landing of the first colonists on Pern and is the middle book of a related trilogy. Thread, the deadly organism that falls from the Red Star onto Pern when the cometary body crosses the orbit of the planet, is due to start falling very shortly. The population of Pern has been greatly reduced by a plague and the dragons are falling sick. Fiona, the only surviving daughter of the Lord Holder of Fort Hold, has just impressed a gold dragon.
With dragons dying and numbers diminished due to natural wastage in the safe Interval, and due to injury and inexperience when the Thread does come, there will soon be insufficient dragons to keep the planet clear. It is decided to send some of the injured and all the young dragons back ten years in time (dragons are able to travel between instantly in time and space) so that the injured can recover and the young can grow up and be trained. Fiona with her gold dragon is taken as Weyrwoman to an abandoned Weyr. Although she is only thirteen turns old, she has to take on the responsibility of organising the Weyr and making sure there is food and other supplies for both dragons and men.
Although the writing and the understanding of the culture of Pern are immaculate, this particular book does not sparkle. The emphasis is on the day to day problems of running a Weyr. There is no sense of a danger where the main characters may not survive, so tension is lacking and the emotional charge is neutral. As it skims across a number of turns (Pern’s years) the characterisation also seem a little skimpy. Even the sickness the dragons suffer from, disappears once they go back in time. What this book is doing is filling in gaps, explaining how situations in other volumes happened. It is a light, pleasant read but there are stronger ones within the series.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Apr-2010

Return to top

Jack McDevitt

SLOW LIGHTNING by Jack McDevitt

There’s a fairly long review quote from Stephen King on the back of this book. In part it says, ca nail-biting neo-Gothic tale that blends mystery, horror and a fascinating look at how first contact with an utterly alien species might happen.’ Somehow, despite everything, it didn’t work for me. There were certainly bits that were scary. There were bits that were interesting and Kim Brandywine, heroine of the book, was sufficiently real to me that I wanted to give her a bloody good shake but I wasn’t gripped. If it hadn’t been the only book I’d got with me on the plane I’d have dumped it back onto the review table with the hope that someone else would pick it up.
Kim works as a marketing person for the Seabright Institute who are turning stars nova in an effort to attract aliens, in a universe that seems empty of other life. (Naïve? Yup.) Some years ago her older clone/sister disappeared after returning from an expedition to find life. This loss has affected Kim deeply. It seems to have turned her into the sort o f person who would carelessly risk her own and other people’s careers, and indeed lives, out o f curiosity. Inevitably she sets out to investigate what happened all those years ago with massive consequences.
It’s difficult to say quite why I found it so uninspiring. Certainly I found the reliance on individual stupidity and misjudgement to be irritating with Kim being a particularly splendid example. The scary bits were pretty damn scary but somehow didn’t come to anything. The mystery looked interesting but again, was finally revealed to be fairly mundane. It is a well written book which I found, ultimately disappointing.

Reviewed by Yvonne Rowse Apr-2000

Return to top

Ed McDonald

BLACKWING (The Raven’s Mark 1) by Ed McDonald

In recent years, there has been a rise in popularity of fantasy labelled as “grimdark” for works which are seen as particularly violent, with cynical flawed heroes and often dystopian worlds. Writers such as Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence and Richard Morgan have been particularly successful in this field. By those criteria, BLACKWING could be classed as fitting this type of novel.
Ryhalt Galharrow is a disgraced nobleman who has pledged himself to the service of a powerful being called Crowfoot. This is marked by a raven tattoo on his arm, which gives him the rank and title of Blackwing. With his disreputable crew, he tracks anyone who flees the Republic into the twisted, distorted and deadly border region called the Misery. The Misery was created as a defence against The Deep Kings, other powerful beings who wish to overthrow the Republic. For eighty years, the Misery and the threat of Nall’s Engine (a powerful magical device) have maintained the stalemate with the Eastern Empire and the Deep Kings.
After years of silence, the tattoo rips from his arm and delivers a message; he must protect a mysterious noblewoman who is visiting a nearby frontier fortress. However, he finds complacent, poorly-trained troops and ill- maintained defences. While he is there, the fortress is breached and overrun by invading troops. The famed Nall’s Engine fails to activate and he escapes only because of the magical abilities of the woman (Ezabeth) he is supposed to be rescuing. They then work together to uncover the traitors and to try and restore the Republic’s major defences before an emboldened army led by the Deep Kings can destroy them.
This is the debut novel by a new author and definitely shows promise. The premise is different and does not feel too familiar. There is good pacing and the story fairly rattles along. The world building including the Misery and the gruesome agents of the Deep Kings (Darlings, Brides etc) all show excellent imagination and make a welcome change from the stock orcs, goblins etc. In terms of grimdark, I am not sure it is a completely accurate description – the protagonist although outwardly cynical, is very much a hero in terms of his actions and motivations.
Where the novel feels it could be improved is in the characters. The two main characters, although they have some flaws and back stories, feel almost too competent, and I found myself a little emotionally detached from them. Also, the secondary characters would benefit from more detail and attention to their back story. Nenn (Galharrow’s second in command) felt like a far more potentially interesting character than the magician, Ezabeth and I hope she is given more time in the next volume. Part of the problem I had may be with the story all being told from Galharrow’s point of view, which always makes it more difficult to convey other characters’ thoughts and opinions. To summarise, this is an auspicious start from a new author who I am sure will continue to improve, and BLACKWING will appeal to many fans of gritty fantasy.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Aug-2017

Return to top

Ian McDonald

LUNA: NEW MOON by Ian McDonald

In Ian McDonald’s LUNA: NEW MOON, the Moon is being colonised and exploited for its unique resources and environment. The moon colony is like an extreme “gold rush” frontier town. Ostensibly overseen by Earth, via a Lunar Development Corporation, in reality there is little law other than contract law, which governs everything and even court cases can be settled by trial by combat. For those who succeed the rewards can be rich but in a world where everything even oxygen must be paid for, failure can be fatal. Five major family corporations, the “Five Dragons” control much of the wealth and industry and the story looks at the growing tensions between two of the families, the Corta’s (who mine Helium-3 which is vital for Earth and Moon power generation) and the Mackenzie’s (who make their money from metal extraction). These families have been there from the early days and have used arranged marriages to cement alliances and settle disputes. As Adriana Corta, the Brazilian-born matriarch approaches her 80th birthday, internal family struggles over the succession and escalating tensions between the two families over control of resources erupt and change things irrevocably.
This is a complex and detailed story told from multiple viewpoints. The characterisation of so many different yet essential characters is superb. The society the author has imagined is a multi-cultural melting point, with people from all over Earth forging a new life on the Moon. The detailed research into societies as diverse as Brazilian, Ghanaian and Chinese is evident. This research also shows in a consideration of the necessary science, technology and biology involved in this intricately constructed world.
While any SF novel based on the Moon will inevitably be compared to Heinlein’s THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, this book also reminds me in a lot of ways of DUNE (Frank Herbert). It has that same sense of a society shaped by its environment, and the same atmosphere of families and corporations constantly manoeuvring for advantage and survival in a harsh environment. Another similarity is that there are also hints of religious and other groups starting to make long-term genetic and societal evolutionary plans. This sense of a cultural evolution of humanity (exiled permanently from Earth as their bodies adapt to lunar gravity) on a new world and the detailed worldbuilding also reminds me of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series. This is masterful, adult SF and I can’t wait to read the sequel, LUNA: WOLF MOON.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Sep-2017

Return to top

LUNA: WOLF MOON (Luna 2) by Ian McDonald

In the first book in this series, hostilities between two of the five major lunar families (the Five Dragons) erupted into open conflict and warfare. At the end of that book, the Corta family was decimated and the remaining members were scattered, taking refuge with other families or groups. Clan Mackenzie appears triumphant and has acquired control of most of Corta company’s previous holdings.
As the remaining lunar Corta’s try to rebuild their lives, one of the senior Corta’s has escaped from the Moon during the initial upheaval. Believed dead, they have room to manoeuvre and recruit allies. Over the two intervening years they have plotted and conspired with the aim of exacting a vicious and elaborate revenge. As that revenge comes to fruition, many inhabitants of the Moon will find their lives and livelihoods massively disrupted and lunar society will be changed forever.
The author delivers yet another hugely satisfying thriller. The reader is again drawn into the conflict between ruthless families. This time we see more of other lunar groups than just the Corta’s; the Mackenzies, ostensible victors at the beginning, who fragment into two factions as events progress; the Sun’s, Asamoah’s and Vorontsov’s, as they jockey for advantage amidst the disruption; and the loosely bound Wolf groups and the quasi-religious Sisterhood who help shelter some of the remaining Corta’s.
Once again, the level of detail in the world building is exemplary. There is a large cast of characters (a Character list is provided and is very useful) which may deter some readers. However, most are sufficiently dissimilar and differentiated that the reader is not confused. In fact, I found this large number of viewpoints and personalities a major part of the richness and depth of this book. The author has succeeded in creating a capitalistic, machiavellian society where people must be hypervigilant among the backstabbing rivalries. Nevertheless, it is not all one-sided and there are also examples of love, selflessness and sacrifice which keep this from being a bleak novel. Also among the believable technological advances and the merging of different cultures, there are hopeful signs of a unique, lunar society evolving, separate and different from Earth. A wonderful hard SF novel with a fitting conclusion that still tempts the reader onwards with the many issues remaining to be resolved in the third volume.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Oct-2017

Return to top

RIVER OF GODS by Ian McDonald

I have not previously got on very well with Ian McDonald’s work but this is different – a great big coruscating blockbuster of a novel, one of the best I have read for some time. It takes place in 2047 on the Indian sub-continent, now divided into twelve semi-independent nation-states, a setting which is as alien as many a distant planet. Law and order is a tenuous concept at best, corruption is everywhere, but the central most important theme is that the proliferation of computer systems has led to the emergence of self-aware artificial intelligences which are trying to escape human control in order to pursue their own incomprehensible agendas.
The story is told from the alternating points-of-view of several disparate characters, one of whom becomes involved in the exploration of a strange object which has been discovered approaching the Earth from outside the solar system.
Meanwhile, another makes the discovery that an A.I. is not merely generating CGI characters for the most popular soap on TV but is also providing CGI ‘actors’ to give them an off-screen persona. Eventually these and other narrative threads come together to provide a denouement which is as remarkable as it is unexpected.
New, inventive, wide-ranging and strange, this is by any criterion a firstrate novel.
Reviewed by Michael Jones Aug-2005

Return to top

Seanan McGuire

ROSEMARY AND RUE (Toby Daye Book 1) by Seanan McGuire

October (Toby) Daye is a changeling - half human/half fae and a knight of the Summerland Court. Things get a little fishy for Toby when she's tailing Simon Torquill, twin brother of her liege, Sylvester Torquill. And by fishy, I'm being literal; no fancy metaphors here. Simon uses his power to turn Toby into a fish where she flounders in a pond for fourteen years until the spell breaks and she is found naked and disoriented, the apparent victim of an attack.
When she tells the police who she is they are in uproar at her for impersonating a dead woman. So she has no choice but to retain a human disguise and work the night shift at the local Safeway, dealing with the loss of her partner Cliff and daughter Gillian who wants nothing to do with her after she reappears fourteen years later.
However Toby can't ignore Faerie much longer when her friend Countess Evening Winterrose phones her, in trouble and sounding scared. And she is on the case before she can blink.
Blending magic, fae mythology and the sprawling city of San Francisco, McGuire puts the 'urban' and 'fantasy' in equal measure back into this busting-at-the-seams genre. It is at times over-saturated but McGuire's combination of a truly sassy, likeable female hero, her supporting cast, and the murder mystery elements make this book stand above the rest. It is written with a wonderful wry sense of humour and Toby has to deal with attempts on her life as well as attempts on her chastity by ex-lover Devin, whilst building up a whole host of debts to various fae including the annoying, yet alluring Tybalt, Cait Sidhe and King of Cats.
The initial murder mystery is wrapped up nicely by the end but the book does leave lots of questions open for the following book. A rollicking good read.

Reviewed by Theresa Derwin Nov-2015

Return to top

Richelle Mead

SUCCUBUS REVEALED by Richelle Mead

I dislike seeing items described as ‘Must Have’ when I am out shopping, many things are but most of those so labelled are not. However being a ‘bookaholic’ certain series by particular authors are to me ‘Must Haves’, a novel in Richelle Mead’s Georgina Kincaid urban fantasy series is one of these. SUCCUBUS REVEALED is the 6th and possibly final book in the series which chronicles the story of Georgina Kincaid a succubus and her, quite pure, passion for author Seth Mortensen. Both are engaging characters and following their tale is a great pleasure. Georgina may be a member of Hell’s Legions, but she is smart, funny and compassionate having sold her soul to the Devil in order to save others from harm. Adding breadth to this and the previous novels are her Seattle-based mundane and ‘infernal’ friends, a somewhat disreputable angel as well as Seth’s delightful family who are suffering more than their fair share of misfortune. In SUCCUBUS REVEALED all seems to be going well in her love life when she is suddenly given notice requiring her to move to Las Vegas, a seemingly ideal location for a succubus. When she gets there everything seems too good to be true while misfortune hits Seth’s family. To solve these mysteries her Seattle friends rally round, especially the nephilim, Roman and the angel Carter. To resolve matters requires a trip to hell and, as is to be expected, getting back is by no means guaranteed. One of the things that I like about SUCCUBUS REVEALED is that although it is part of series and full of well-fleshed engaging characters, it is eminently readable by itself and a reader is not disadvantaged if he/she has not read any of the previous five books. The whole of the Georgina Kincaid urban fantasy series is an excellent read.

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Nov-2010

Return to top

John Meaney

ABSORPTION by John Meaney

John Meaney is a clever and complex writer. He weaves seemingly unrelated stories together to make a greater whole.
In this novel there are at least five strands scattered throughout time, each with their separate characters but with the hint of a common theme.
Ulfr is a warrior of a Northern clan in 777AD. He believes in the trickery of the Norse gods. He perceives the travelling bard Stigr as touched by darkness even though his oratory entrances the rest of the tribe. Gavriela Wolf, a German Jew and a physicist in the 1920s sees the same phenomenon when she spies on a local meeting and observes Hitler entrancing the crowd.
In 2146, Rekka Chandri is the member of the human exploration team that makes contact with the sentient natives on an unnamed planet. The local people communicate by scent and transfer knowledge directly by tasting each other’s flesh in ritual situations. One of her friends back home is a pilot who, in order to navigate muspace, has had her eyes replaced.
Further in the future in 2603, Roger Blackstone is just starting college on Fulgor. He notices a darkness lingering around his tutor but is too busy making friends and studying to let it worry him. His father, Carl, is a descendent of the pilots of 22nd century Earth but is genetically adapted to operate in mu-space.
He has been a spy on Fulgor for twenty years.
Roger, Gavi and Ulfr each dream that they inhabit crystal bodies in some far future place. They occasionally get waking visions of each other.
Most of the action takes place on Fulgor as one of the Luculenti hierarchy, Rashella Stargonier, discovers an artefact buried on her estate. When she opens it, she is infected by a vampire code which eats its way into her neural paths. She and all the other Luculenti are connected to the Skein, the communications web of the planet as are all the services of the city. She finds that she can connect with and devour the neural information of others, leaving them dead. The hunger to gather this knowledge accelerates putting the whole city in peril.
By the end of this volume, the first of three, it is possible to see loose connections between the disaster played out on Fulgor and the characters in the past. The links, however, are not yet strong enough to see the true pattern emerging. Possibly Meaney has introduced too many strands, too quickly, to do the overall shape full justice. Buy this book, but save it until the subsequent volumes are published before reading them.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan May-2010

Return to top

David Mitchell

THE BONE CLOCKS by David Mitchell

I saw that this had just won the World Fantasy Award so I read it to find out how much SF/fantasy it has. As in CLOUD ATLAS, there's some SF and some fantasy, though mostly this is literary fiction.
Mitchell is a perceptive writer, particularly talented at creating entertainingly offbeat characters in widely different milieux. His depictions of the teenage Holly Sykes and the undergraduate Hugh Lamb in the recent past (1980s, 1990s) are a joy to read, full of wit and clever revelation. Gradually the narrative progresses, via different narrators and Mitchell's familiar novella structure, into the future. But over half the novel has gone by before we arrive at anything substantially futuristic (2025), and the previous SF/fantasy elements have been restricted to very brief episodes easily dismissed as hallucinations.
Only after page 397 do we learn about the reincarnation theme and the war between two groups of supermen (and women) with super powers. There's an exciting (though baffling) battle between the two groups. Later on, in 2043, we see the planet, via the microcosm of one small corner of Ireland, descending into dystopia and barbarism.
Somewhere in the middle of the book is political satire and literary feuding. I noticed Lord Sugar and The Apprentice (carefully renamed to avoid legal action) receiving a kicking.
So this contains many themes, several tropes of SF and plenty of characters turning up again and again in major and minor roles. Mostly it's Holly Sykes' novel; she's there at the beginning and the end.
Mitchell has done an excellent (if occasionally patchy) job. This is a difficult and demanding novel, partly SF and partly not, though wholly worth reading. NB Copy not supplied by Sceptre/Hodder––I bought it.

Reviewed by Chris Morgan Jan-2016

Return to top

L E Modesitt Jr

GRAVITY DREAMS by L E Modesitt Jr

Science fiction! A good post Holocaust novel well worth a read. The holocaust this time being as a result of nanotechnology and age control.
The lead character has to come to terms with technology and new values.
Aiming for one post as a respectable teacher in society he falls from grace, having all he loves taken away he has to run. Fleeing to the demons he has to start his life again and being stubborn ends up at the bottom before he can accept the talents he has in the new society.

Reviewed by Anne Woodford Aug-2000

Return to top

Richard K Morgan

THE COLD COMMANDS by Richard K Morgan

Richard Morgan has proved himself to be the master of two genres, i.e. SF with his first novels: The Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, MARKET FORCES and BLACK MAN and now with THE COLD COMMANDS and its predecessor THE STEEL REMAINS he is demonstrating his mastery of dark fantasy. In THE COLD COMMANDS a warning has been given by the Kariathi helmsman Anasharal (an AI) of the reappearance after 4000 years of a ghost island in the northern ocean which is reputed to be the mausoleum of the greatest emperor of the Dwenda, the Illwrack Changeling. The Dwenda are a humanoid race, formally mankind’s masters and deadly enemy. This reappearance is forecast to have dire consequences for humanity. With this in the background the story follows the adventures or misadventures of Ringil Eskiath, sometimes called ‘Angeleyes’, a disreputable scion of one of the Trelayne (Northern) League, a scarred hero of the Gallows Gap battle and a self described ‘faggot’. While his is the greater part in the tale, his strand is skilfully interwoven with those of other heroes of THE STEEL REMAINS. That is Egar the Dragonbane, a majak (steppe nomad) mercenary living in the southern empire city of Yhelteth and their friend Archeth the last remaining member of the Kariath race and special advisor to the Emperor Jiral. Many other characters, including the Emperor, a sect of religious fanatics, the Kariathi helmsmen and dark gods add to the overall richness of the plot. Like many books this one started very well, but suffered a brief dip into the doldrums in the middle with Ringil languishing in the misty ‘Grey Places’ a dimension that partly overlaps with that in which humanity dwells and which is home of the Dwenda and the Dark Gods and the occasional human. However, this is brief and is germane to the story and does not distract from the overall excellence of THE COLD COMMANDS. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Dec-2010

Return to top

WOKEN FURIES by Richard K Morgan

The star of Morgan’s debut novel ALTERED CARBON, Takeshi Kovacs, is here returned for a third adventure, set this time on his native planet.
He has returned there on a personal mission of vengeance but he soon finds himself entangled in a web of political intrigue in which the implacable enmity of a version of his own former self is far from the worst of his problems.
The reader will find the opening chapters are dense with information as the scene is set, and it doesn’t get any easier to follow. There develops a complex story of changing allegiances and shifting loyalties among an extensive cast of characters which includes some of Kovacs’ former friends – not all of whom are such good friends as he once thought. The twists and turns which ensue make the detective thrillers of the past – Raymond Chandler, for example – seem positively tame by comparison.
It derives heavily from the Cyberpunk school of writing, replete with advanced technology, advanced computer interfacing, advanced communication systems and advanced weaponry all thrown in and seasoned with a good deal of sex and violence, so something for everybody. Oh, and central to the plot is the possibility of anybody who can manage to arrange it having their personality and accumulated experience downloaded and transferred into a replacement body or ‘sleeve’: bought, borrowed, rented or stolen as the case may be.
It may sound like little more than a slam-bang action story, and to a large extent that is so. However, Morgan does manage to redeem himself with implicit commentary on the problems for society which will result from the availability of ‘re-sleeving’, which means virtual immortality for the fortunate few, as well as an in-passing commentary on the evils of oligarchic political systems where too much wealth is concentrated in too few hands. A good SF novel, therefore, in the best tradition of extrapolative fiction.

Reviewed by Michael Jones Jun-2005

Return to top

Linda Nagata

VAST by Linda Nagata

I had a real struggle with this - 1 found myself constantly looking for something else to do instead of picking it up and reading some more of it and I have rarely been so glad to get to the end of a book as I was with this one.
The basis of it sounded most appealing, with a crew of humans aboard a semi-organic spaceship fleeing the destruction of their world, with an automated alien destroyer in hot pursuit. For decades they seek either to fight off their pursuer or to make contact with the object of subverting it so that they can make good their escape. At the same time they aim to penetrate the part of space from which the enemy originated millions of years ago, in the hope of finding out how to put a stop to the endless destruction of all life in the universe.
(Yes, I am familiar with Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series.)
The trouble with VAST is that it is just too intricate. The crew are a highly advanced form o f humanity and they live and operate in a confusing mishmash of intelligent viruses, nanotech and computer interfacing as they restructure their ship, re-grow their bodies and split off virtual personae as and when the need seems to arise. Half the time I found it almost impossible to follow who was doing what, and why, and it was perhaps because of this that I could not discover any dramatic tension, any excitement, to keep me interested. Maybe this was simply a failing on my part and a better reader than me might get more out of it than I did, because there is definitely a high level of inventive writing in there. However, I must speak as I find and what I found was bor-ring.
Also, there were tantalising hints that this was a sequel to at least one previous volume, with the possibility of more to come. On other occasions like this I have been interested enough to seek out the rest of the series, but not this time thank you. Michael Jones

Reviewed by May-2000

Return to top

Terry Nation

SURVIVORS by Terry Nation

First written in the ‘70’s by Terry Nation, this story has seen a revival with the recent TV series shown on the BBC, starring Julie Graham, Paterson Joseph and Max Beesley. I watched the programme before reading the book, and the two are not at all the same although they obviously follow the same basic root storyline. The basic premise is that a mystery virus (never, annoyingly, explained in either medium) spreads scarily quickly and wipes out most of the world’s population in a matter of a few days. It starts off slow but then seems to take hold overnight. This part is covered quickly as the main focus of the storyline is, of course, from the title the survivors and how they cope with an almost empty world with all the mod cons still around them. The book and programme star a character called Abby Grant who has lost her family but thinks her son may be alive still. She gradually meets other survivors, some friendly, some not, and with a small commune of the friendly ones, she learns self-sufficiency and eventually forms long term survival plans.
This is occasionally interrupted by other groups who try to raid their supplies or form an army to control the surrounding areas.
The book covers more of a timescale than the series - though admittedly another series is in the pipeline which may cover events in the latter part of the book. The characters are also slightly different in the book which meant I had some trouble relating what I’d watched to what I was now reading about. Only Abby and to some extent Greg appeared to match in both book and series. Some set pieces were straight from the novel, others appeared to have been invented completely. I presumed this was done to bring the story a bit more up to date and relevant, though really the only thing I missed in the story was any mention of computers, software and gadgets, though of course, without electricity these would presumably have been useless anyway.
The ending and approach to the book’s resolution was a bit different to what I was expecting, and it will be interesting to see if the series takes this line next time. Overall I enjoyed the story, though I might have liked a bit more padding out of the characters. I was trying to rely on my memory from the programme to remember what the characters were like as people, and their individual backgrounds but not a lot of detail is given to bring them to life. A good read anyway, and it moves along at a good pace. The parts which may strike a chord include the initial reactions to the ‘flu’ (in these days of swine flu breakouts) and the scenes where they are making a new life for themselves out of the remaining rations etc.

Reviewed by Vicky Stock Feb-2010

Return to top

Vera Nazarian

THE CLOCK KING AND THE QUEEN OF THE HOURGLASS by Vera Nazarian

Far in the future, the Earth is dying and the human race is vastly changed, resembling Roswell greys more than the current race. Liaei has been created in a lab to become the mate of the Clock King, a man trapped inside a stasis device, periodically released from his confinement for a brief period, before he must return to stasis to prevent the passage of time catching up with him and reducing him to dust.
But the book takes its time to get to the meeting of the two humans, with fully the first half of the story concentrating on the childhood and her development into adulthood of Liaei and her associations with the members of the future human race, and her growing understanding of her world.
I have been looking forward to this novella since I first heard of it. The synopsis I read appealed to me particularly. So in some ways I was dreading that it might not live up to my hopes, thankfully though it did. And in one way it lives up to this because of the deliberate build up, for although this is a short book, the author does not feel rushed by this length. Everything here takes place at a steady even pace. And in having this pace it allows you to feel with the lead character, to see the world she lives in as she discovers more of it as she grows.
Our connection with Liaei is made all the easier by her being a genetically re-engineered human - one of us so to speak - in a world where the human race has evolved into a virtually different species, a hairless androgynous long- lived race. This means Liaei has to cope not only with the usually problems of adolescence but she has to do it in an essentially alien environment, how much worse must the feelings of being completely alone and different from everyone around when you are the only human.
There is a beauty in the prose here, a lyrical quality. The writing is quite sublime. A good deal of the time I like a writing style which allows the story to be told - one that doesn't get in the way, and feel that flowery text (my description for what is often called literary or lyrical) just obscures the plot unnecessarily.
Here, however, the story is quite different. The prose is exquisite but it is not flowery, not a case of ‘why use one word when you can use thirty’. But it is also a truly pleasant little tale - not a half idea shrouded in nice words where the author might hope the good turn of phrase might mask the lack of substance, this is a fine little tale set in a believable well portrayed far distant future.
Every aspect of this novel has a point, every inclusion necessary to the advancement of the tale. The details of the society of the future, inhabited by these long-lived future humans, with the secrets of the technology guiding their lives lost to them, and the machines slowly breaking down; the teachings of the requirements of Liaei's sexual destiny by an essentially asexual nursemaid and a computer; and the ravaged Earth, all contributing to the texture of the tale.
Golly this is good!

Reviewed by Steve Mazey Dec-2005

Return to top

Emma Newman

PLANETFALL by Emma Newman

When we look at the people around us there is a danger that we will assess them according to our own lights. The physically disabled and frail are usually easy to recognise but some conditions are hidden, such as diabetes, heart conditions and asthma. They can be as debilitating but are externally invisible. So are many mental issues. It has taken a very long time – centuries in some cases – for the medical fraternity to recognise some of them. How much harder is it, then, for the ordinary person to know? Especially if the sufferer doesn’t talk about their concerns.
The basis behind the novel, PLANETFALL, is an expedition to a distant planet, instigated by Suh-Mi. She has been missing, presumed dead for more than twenty years but her presence resonates throughout this book. The remaining colonists have built their town around an alien structure into which Suh-Mi disappeared. Most of them are expecting her to return with words of wisdom. They have been waiting a long time. In this sense she is a Moses figure, leading her people to a promised land and now they wait for the final revelation.
Renata Ghali (Ren) is a printer engineer. Since most of the needs of the community are met using 3-D printers she is a valuable and respected member. Outwardly, she seems as balanced as everyone else. The fact that she goes down into the recycling room and takes away thrown-away items that she thinks can be mended is eccentric but understandable; well within the norms of human behaviour. Then the society is destabilised by the arrival of Sung- Soo. He staggers in from outside. That he is alive is revelation enough as everyone believed that the landers carrying other colonists were all destroyed. He explains that there were survivors but he is the last of them. And he is Suh-Mi’s grandson. The other revelation is that although the plants native to this planet are toxic to humans, he can eat them, probably due to the parasite they find living in his gut.
Nevertheless, he is made welcome and a home is made for him. He wants to know everything, especially about his grandmother. His presence, though, is a catalyst for change. Ren has not invited anyone into her home for years. Gradually the reason unfolds. She is a hoarder. She is unable to throw anything away. She has filled every available space with the broken objects that she has rescued. To other eyes, they are garbage, to her, they are precious. She will fix them – eventually. When the other colonists discover this, they see it a deviation not as a mental illness that should be looked on with sympathy and treated. Their reactions set off a further chain of events that threatens to dissolve the glue that holds the colony together. It is unusual, and pleasing, to have a seriously damaged person as a central character but as this is a first person narrative it is possible to show Ren’s mind-set and the way that she fails to understand that there is anything odd about her behaviour. Newman treats her sympathetically and it is easy to relate to Ren’s issues, even perhaps, seeing a little of ourselves in her.
This book has excellent characterisation and the plot revelations, as they creep up on the reader, are delightfully handled. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Jul-2016

Return to top

Stan Nicholls

BODYGUARD OF LIGHTNING & LEGION OF THUNDER by Stan Nicholls

There is a world, where all the other-world creatures, such as
dwarves, elves, orcs, pixies etc are the native inhabitants and humans are the interlopers. Magic is real, but it is dying. The ice is closing in from the north and the Puritans are ploughing up the earth, destroying the conduits of magic. Salt this with an evil queen or two and some highly desirable thaumatergical artefacts (which no-one knows what they do) and you have a familiar fantasy scenario. Except that here, the orcs, those bloodthirsty, evil, demons- spawn are the heroes. Orcs in this world, though warriors, are the mercenary troupes o f Queen Jennesta. Stryke's troupe have been directed to capture a particular cylinder from a human fortress. After the massacre, they also find a haul of the narcotic, pellucid.
They spend the next twelve hours out of their skulls, realise that Jennesta will be so unhappy about the delay that she will probably execute them all so take a short cut home, only to be ambushed and the cylinder stolen from them.
Later, Stryke's troupe discover that the cylinder contains one of
several artefacts and decide that their best bet is to try and collect all of them. Thus, they embark on a quest, cutting a swathe o f destruction across the land, with the whole of the known universe at their heels.
Volume two is a continuation of volume one. The pace is fast and furious, the interplay between characters is good but I didn't feel drawn into the plot. After a while, the continuous mayhem begins to pall and the characters begin to lose their identity as ores. While this book may well appeal to the less discriminating reader, it does not have the eccentricity and humour of Mary Gentle's novel Grunts.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Jan-2000

Return to top

QUICKSILVER ZENITH by Stan Nicholls

This is the second volume of a fantasy trilogy, that begins at a cracking pace, and continues at the same speed. Volume one, QUICKSILVER RISING, introduces the principal characters and sets up the identity of this world. Here, magic has roughly the same function as electricity does in ours. The rich can afford all kinds of magical items, usually called glamours, while the poor have to make do with low quality fakes. The dynamics of the plot are complex, with four factions vying for attention. Two empires, constantly at war with each other, dominate most of the civilised world. As they are both despotic, there is a Resistance, an association of groups working towards the lifting of the yoke of tyranny. To the north, Zerriess, the leader of the barbarian hordes is moving southwards, killing the magic as he goes. The danger he represents has yet to be recognised by the other powers. Thrown into this mixture is a wild card. Prince Melyobar, the titular ruler of Bhealfa is mad and in his floating palace is attempting to outrun Death. Anything he does is likely to mess up the plans of any of the others.
The focus of the plot is centred on the island of Bhealfa. Here, an odd selection of characters are brought together by circumstance – Serrah, a disgraced soldier; Reeth a bandit prone to berserker rages; Kutch an apprentice wizard; Karr a politician; Kinsel, a pacifist singer; Tanalvah, a whore; and many others.
These fall in with the Resistance movement.
QUICKSILVER ZENITH sees the Resistance movement planning to escape from tyranny by buying an island and moving all their sympathisers to it.
Naturally there are problems – there is a traitor in Resistance, Kinsel in arrested and undergoes a travesty of a trial before being sentenced to the galleys, and Reeth is accused of the murder of the leader of the paladins. The paladins are a mercenary group that have become rich by playing for both empires. With all the issues thrown into the melting pot, it does not seem that one final volume will be enough to resolve all of them.
The plot moves very fast, with a lot of action. Even if all the sword fights are not wholly convincing it doesn’t matter too much as the reader is swept along. There is also a vast cast list. As a result it is impossible to develop them in any great depth in the space they have been allowed. In many ways these would have been more satisfying books if they were longer. Nevertheless, you are left wanting to know what happens next.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Apr-2005

Return to top

Alyson Noël

EVERMORE: THE IMMORTALS by Alyson Noël

This is a book that will appeal to the teenage fans of Stephanie Meyers’ TWILIGHT and its sequels. There are a number of familiar elements. Like Buffy (the Vampire Slayer) and Bella (from TWILIGHT) Ever is a teenager attending an American High School. Like Buffy, she is a bit of a misfit. Her friends are Haven, a Goth wannabe, and Miles who is gay. She instantly makes an enemy of the most popular girl in her year – Stacia. As in TWILIGHT, a gorgeous male classmate soon appears who acts mysteriously and is not what he seems.
Ever, though, is not an ordinary teenager. She was the sole survivor of a car crash which killed her parents, sister and dog. As a result of that accident (reminiscent of Charlaine Harris’s heroine, Harper, of her Grave series of books), Ever has been left with psychic powers. She can hear other people’s thoughts, see their auras and see the dead. In fact, her dead sister, Riley, keeps hanging around. Ever is ambivalent towards the new boy, Damen. He does not have an aura and when he speaks, the other voices go quiet. He keeps giving her red tulips, but flirts with Stacia. He induces her to play truant, then disappears. There are, however, no vampires or werewolves in Evermore.
Although this novel, the first of six projected books, may seem derivative to the well read reader, it is very enjoyable and catches the flavour of teen life. It ought to prove popular.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Jan-2010

Return to top

Naomi Novik

TONGUES OF SERPENTS by Naomi Novik

This is book 6 of the Temeraire series - a very engaging series following the adventures of Captain William Laurence and his dragon Temeraire as they are thrown together to fight for Britain during the turbulent time of the Napoleonic Wars. In this latest book in the series, Laurence has been convicted of treason and stripped of rank, and sent to Australia along with a prison colony. With them travel three dragon eggs which are to be handed over to officers willing to accept such a remote assignment in that part of the world, including Captain Rankin, a former acquaintance, whose cruelty once cost a dragon its life. They arrive to a colony in turmoil and accept a mission to venture into the interior of Australia. But one of the eggs is then stolen which changes the shape and urgency of their mission, as they must recover it before it hatches. Their quest also leads to further discoveries about the global war between Britain and France. This book for me took a fair bit of settling into. I am normally a quick reader and fully expected a book of this size and subject matter to not take me long at all. I have read most of the others in this series, and had become a bit of a big fan so was rather excited to have the opportunity to review this latest offering. The first section, set in the colony when Laurence and Temeraire have just arrived, has quite a slow pace. Not a lot happened, there was lots of discussion about the latest developments in the war, and the characters were all maybe a bit too prim and proper for me to warm to them. However, the book changes pace and feel as the expedition is launched into the interior of the continent and the chase to find the egg starts. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the Blue Mountains and later on the desert regions. The narrative here makes the experience a very vivid one for the reader. The characters settle down a bit and become warmer, and more realistic in general in the way they talk and react to events and situations. The number of dragons increases which leads to more variety in characters, and it is easy to imagine them and what they are like. I am a big fan of good characterisation and this really improved the book for me. Interestingly, whereas the first section took me a long time to read, the last two thirds of the book took me a few days! Not just that I had more time to read it, I was more inclined to want to press on and see what happened! Overall a good book, and as engaging ultimately as some of the earlier books, although the heroes are more settled with each other now. There is still new territory to explore with this ongoing story, something which the author hints at in her final chapters which suggest possible trips to other countries and regions.

Reviewed by Vicky Stock Nov-2010

Return to top

Nnedi Okorafor

THE BOOK OF PHOENIX by Nnedi Okorafor

I had high hopes for this book before starting to read it. Firstly, it was on the shortlist for this year’s Clarke Award for the best SF novel which hopefully indicates a degree of quality. Secondly. with a Nigerian American author, I anticipated a distinctive and potentially unusual perspective which is something I usually appreciate. Unfortunately, I was severely disappointed and really struggled to even finish the book. This is the story of Phoenix, a black woman who is an “accelerated organism”. She is the result of genetic engineering, held captive in Tower 7 and subjected to ongoing and painful testing. There are other test subjects there, all of whom are non-Caucasian. When the man she loves apparently dies, she uses her abilities to escape and then embarks on a quest for revenge which ultimately ends with her devastating the whole world.
I have two major problems with this book, Firstly, I don’t think it is science fiction. The story reads more like a fairy story or fable, which is clearly deliberate and includes mystical elements such as the giant Backbone tree and its seed which she replants back in Africa. Phoenix has abilities to match her name; her body temperature can be raised until she burns everything around her, when she dies she is reborn (even if her body has been destroyed), and she can fly. There is no attempt to provide any scientific plausibility to these abilities and the Phoenix character is more like a comic book superhero (or more accurately super-villain).
My second problem is with the narrative of the book itself. The book is clearly intended as an angry polemic about racism. That in itself is fine but the book lacks subtlety and characters are very much good or evil with little middle ground. I recognise that many of the issues raised are real and important, but having every white person as evil and the only effective response to these issues as violence (with Phoenix showing callous indifference to large scale collateral damage) does them a disservice. There is little if any depth of characterisation and the story is advanced by implausible but convenient “helpers” or a new ability. At every point where Phoenix needs help or information there is “magically” just the right person available, ranging from the Ethiopian couple who feed and shelter her when she first escapes to finding a convenient congressman (who also happens to be the only black congressman in the government) who provides them with security clearance and false papers whenever required. While some might claim that the above issues are intentional and the book is intended as satirical, other books deal far more effectively with the issues raised and with far better writing. In short, I found this a thoroughly unpleasant book to read and would not recommend it. Carol Goodwin

Reviewed by Sep-2016

Return to top

Frank Owen

SOUTH by Frank Owen

SOUTH is a saga of the end of the Southern American states and is set in a world where there is and never was a USA. Just the Northern and Southern states, no unification, in fact that is a dirty word to the Southerners who when asked would tell you that a common currency is unification enough. But the Northerners disagree. Eventually there is a referendum. All inhabitants have to return to their home states and vote. However, knowing that they cannot win this referendum the Northerners delay declaring the result and secretly build a dividing wall. This starts a civil war which drags on for many years and is effectively ended when the North unleashes a series of windborne viruses attempting genocide. Thirty years later the viruses keep on coming and to the few southern survivors the wind is to be feared as it brings disease and death.
SOUTH vividly describes the horror of life in this harsh, disease-ridden and devastated land following the brothers Garrett and Dyce Jackson as they flee the brutal vigilante law-enforcing clan, the ‘Callahans’. These are led by the vindictive Tye. One night while sheltering from the wind they meet up and join forces with a young woman, Vida, who is on a secret quest of her own. Standing out among other brilliantly described supporting characters is Felix. a reclusive weatherman.
SOUTH is one of those books that seem to start indifferently but quietly and gently it firmly sets its hooks into you and turns out to be an absorbingly excellent read. It is to be commended.
Frank Owen is the pseudonym for two authors – Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer. Diane’s debut novel GARDENING AT NIGHT won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Best First Book Prize. Alex Latimer is an award winning writer and illustrator whose books have been translated into several languages.

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Aug-2016

Return to top

Marion Pitman

MUSIC IN THE BONE and other stories by Marion Pitman

This hugely entertaining collection of nineteen stories and a poem is the best of Marion Pitman's fiction from the last 35 years. Almost every piece contains elements of the supernatural, though with a great variety of style and treatment.
There's humour in "The Cupboard of the Winds" (would you like to find a deity living in your airing cupboard?), in "Eyes of God" (full of extreme grotesqueness that shouldn't be taken too seriously), and in "Dead Men's Company" (a new take on sex slaves among 18th century pirates).
Sex, tastefully done, is an ingredient in several stories, notably coupled with music in the title story and in "Saxophony", both told from a female position. "Music in the Bone" is arguably the strongest story here, building tension cleverly with musical performances, couplings and sharp changes of key leading to an unexpected climax.
There are more-or-less traditional ghost stories, including "Out of Season", "Looking Glass", "Christmas Present" and "Forward and Back, Changing Places", though in all of them Pitman manages to surprise the reader (always the most difficult thing about ghost stories).
A surprise ending is not always necessary or suitable. There are folk-tales re-worked here, such as the exquisitely told "The Seal Songs", set in the Hebrides, where the climax is fitting, predictable and not at all disappointing.
Not all the stories make sense, by which I mean that there are wonderfully surreal tales such as "Disposal of the Body", where a visit to a family funeral becomes, by degrees, something entirely different. And there's "District to Upminster" which, if you took it seriously, would inhibit you from catching another train ever again. And I suppose that "Overnight Bus", which is about many things including stalking, travelling in South Africa and cricket, deserves a mention here for an astonishingly surreal dream sequence in the middle of it.
To complete the genres there's SF ("Sunlight in Spelling", with enough good ideas for a novel), a really unpleasant horror story of the "payback time" sort ("Indecent Behaviour") and a fantasy western ("Meeting at the Silver Dollar").
What's exceptional about this collection are the arrangement and the poetic skills of the author. Longer and shorter stories alternate, though not slavishly – and I urge you to read the book in the order it's presented. As a poet, Pitman has a great talent for finding the right word and creating the desired atmosphere, while maintaining a tight hold on her material. She never lets style obscure plot or clarity and she knows that one of the greatest secrets of writing fine short stories is brevity – cutting out all repetitions and inessentials.
You can always judge the quality of an author collection by its weakest story. This is a collection without weak stories.

Reviewed by Chris Morgan Dec-2015

Return to top

Tom Pollock

OUR LADY OF THE STREETS (The Skyscraper Throne 3) by Tom Pollock

This is the final book in the Skyscraper Throne trilogy (reviews of the previous two books can be found in Newsletters 518 and 520). In this urban fantasy, the two main protagonists, Beth and Pen have been re-united after Pen’s return from the mirror world of London Under Glass (Book 2 – THE GLASS REPUBLIC).
Unfortunately, the goddess of London, Mater Viae has also returned and she wants to reclaim her throne. In the process she is re-making the city and ordinary inhabitants are dying, trapped in superheated “Fever Streets” or kidnapped by Mater Viae’s creatures, the Claylings for unknown sinister purposes.
In the previous books, thanks to the weird alchemy of the Chemical Synod, Beth had taken on many aspects of the goddess and her health is now linked to the health of the city and the damage caused by Mater Viae means that both Beth and the city are dying. The beleaguered Beth and Pen and her small group of friends must find a way to defeat Mater Viae.
The only alternative remaining to them is to make allies of old enemies but can they be trusted and what will the ultimate cost be to Beth and Pen?
As I have said before Tom Pollock has a vivid imagination and I have thoroughly enjoyed these books. In particular, he has brought a freshness to the urban fantasy field that does not rely on old traditional “creatures”. However, in OUR LADY OF THE STREETS I did feel that the author was to some extent a victim of his own success. In providing us with so many themes and plot strands, in the final book it feels like there is not enough space to address everything in sufficient detail. There are still plenty of good ideas but some characters and situations who the reader cares about are given little space especially the people of the THE GLASS REPUBLIC and Pen and Espel’s romance. Also, the character, Filius Viae from the first book (THE CITY’S SON), although involved to some decree is left to some extent in limbo. The story still has plenty of action and is well-paced and easy to read. However, and again I think this is due to lack of space, the “big bad” Mater Viae is kept “off-stage” for far too long and does not feel like a nuanced villain.
Despite my caveats, if you like urban fantasy I would still recommend this series. Tom Pollock, to my mind has a great deal of talent and given this promising start I look forward to watching him progress.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Mar-2015

Return to top

THE GLASS REPUBLIC (Skyscraper Throne 2) by Tom Pollock

THE GLASS REPUBLIC is the second in the Skyscraper Throne series. The first book THE CITY’S SON was reviewed in Newsletter 518 (November 2014). In that book, teenage Beth meets the son (named Fil) of Mater Viae, the missing Queen of supernatural London. She helps Fil to defeat the Crane King who was threatening London and free her friend, Parva who had been captured by the Wire Mistress, General of the Crane King’s army.
In this sequel, we take a step back and concentrate on the injured Parva who has been left scarred and mutilated. In many ways I find Parva (nicknamed Pen) a more interesting character. She is quieter and less confident than Beth and struggles to re-integrate back into normal life at school. Without Beth as her defender, and with her self- confidence even lower because of her scarred face, she is left alone to face the bullies who now taunt her even more.
However the magic still touches her life. In the previous novel, we were introduced to the Mirror World. If you step between two facing mirrors, creating an infinity of reflections then you generate a mirror doppelganger who exists in the Mirror World (called London under Glass) behind the mirrors. Inadvertently this happens and Pen’s mirror image becomes her new friend and solace, conversing at mirrors until she goes missing and the reflected room shows a pool of blood and a bloody handprint. With little to keep her in this world, Pen makes a bargain with the mysterious alchemists, the Chemical Synod to allow her to cross over to London under Glass to try and rescue her reflection. On the other side she finds a world where her scars make her beautiful and a major celebrity. Everyone assumes she is her mirror twin who is being used as a pawn by the ruling Mirrostocracy. Befriending a young worker, a steeple Jill called Espel, she begins to uncover the truth behind her twin’s disappearance and the brutal and repressive Mirrorstocracy. This climaxes with the revealing of the dreadful secret which keeps the ruling class in power.
As I said of THE CITY’S SON, Tom Pollock is an author full of ideas and imagination. He is excellent at worldbuilding and inventing creatures which do not rely on old tropes and fairy tales. If I had any criticism of THE CITY’S SON it was almost too full of ideas. In this book I liked the tighter focus on Pen and her new friendship with Espel. It was a bold step to shift the focus away from Beth and Fil but it works well. That said the strange world of London under Glass and its strange denizens again shows his talent for worldbuilding but it is the growth and increasing independence of Pen which I particularly liked. The author is clearly improving his craft and his characters have increased depth whilst still retaining the pace and action of a good story. Also the occasional viewpoint shift which niggled me in the first book is now gone. This is in my view a better novel than the first (which I thoroughly enjoyed). The characters and the themes (particularly learning to value yourself and the superficial judgement of others based on physical appearance) are likely to appeal particularly to a young adult market but also to a wider market including fans of urban fantasy.

Reviewed by Carol Goodwin Jan-2015

Return to top

Terry Pratchett

CITY WATCH TRILOGY by Terry Pratchett

This book consists of Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms and Feet o f Clay.
There seems to be, nowadays, three camps where Terry Pratchett is concerned. The first, which I fall into, is the one that loves his work, the second is the one that doesn’t like his work and the third, the one that is dwindling almost daily, the one where people have not read his work.
Saying that, I thought this book would be a nice easy book to read and review and, to be honest, it was very easy to read. It is also simple to review. It is great!
The fact that three of the best of his Discworld stories are put into one volume made it a lot easier to read them in continuation, whereas the first time round I had to wait for two or maybe three years between stories.
Guards! Guards! The first novel of this trilogy introduces us to Captain Vimes, Carrot, Nobby Nobbs and Sargent Colon of the City Watch, and Lady Ramkin, who breeds swamp dragons, raises funds for the Sunshine sanctuary for Sick Dragons and owns half o f Ankh-Morpork. Someone has summoned a dragon into the city and it is appearing, disintegrating people and burning houses, then disappearing again. Vimes knows there is a crime involved but doesn’t quite know which one. And since the arrival of Carrot something strange has been happening to the Watch; they have been trying to catch criminals.
Men at Arms continues the story of the Watch. Vimes is retiring and marrying Lady Ramkin. Someone has stolen the Gonne from the Assassin’s Guild and now they are taking pot-shots at important people in the city, including Sam Vimes. And if that wasn’t enough, he only has until noon tomorrow to crack the case.
Feet of Clay finalises the trilogy. Vimes is now Commander of the Watch and Carrot is the Captain. Someone is murdering seemingly innocent people in the city. They are also poisoning the Patrician. Nobby Nobbs has been made an Earl. When the city golems start committing suicide Vimes has yet another problem on his hands.
Terry Pratchett has three of his best works in one volume and if you have never read any o f his work before this is probably one of the best ways to start reading the Discworld novels. But then again, I am a little biased.

Reviewed by Dan Waters Apr-2000

Return to top

Christopher Priest

THE GRADUAL by Christopher Priest

Christopher Priest is a very stylish writer. Not only is he able to tell an enthralling story without the verbosity of some modern writers, he fills the prose with subtlety and reaches out to the intellect of the reader. THE GRADUAL is a very fine book.
Priest first visited the Dream Archipelago in a series of stories written between 1978 and 1999 when they were collected together in a volume bearing that title. The Archipelago consists of thousands of islands mostly scattered across an equatorial sea. Although many have names, it has proved impossible to map them. No attempt provides the same pattern but each island has its own characteristics. The 2011 novel, THE ISLANDERS, is written as a gazetteer of some of the islands throughout which a narrative unfolds. The sequence begins to show in more detail the anomalies visitors have to contend with. In THE GRADUAL, some of these are explored rather than explained.
This novel is narrated by Alesandro Sussken. He is a native of the continental country of Glaund. His country has been at war with its neighbour for a long time. Tired of bombing each other’s civilian populations, they have agreed to fight the war on the uninhabited Southern continent. Each youth is expected to do military service and Alesandro’s older brother is waved off with the expectation that he will return in four years. It doesn’t happen. Alesandro gets on with his life, making a name for himself as a composer. It is this that gains him a place on a cultural exchange tour of part of the archipelago. It is only when he returns after the tour of nine weeks that he discovers there is a problem. In Glaund, eighteen months have passed. His house is closed up with bills left unpaid, his wife has moved out and his parents have died. Alesandro is philosophical. He cannot understand what has happened but there is nothing can do about it. So, he gets on with his life, composing and teaching. Then, at the age of fifty, he gets an offer he cannot refuse. The Generalissima, leader of the country, honours him by asking him to create the music for a gala celebration. He will be paid more money than he has ever earned in his life. She outlines the pattern that she wants his composition to take. Refusal is likely to be taken as traitorous behaviour and since the country is under martial law, this probably means execution. Alesandro accepts the money, transfers as much as he can to an off-shore account and flees into the Dream Archipelago.
As Alessandro begins his travels, he starts to understand what happened all those years ago on the concert tour. The archipelago is threaded through with a gradual. This speeds up or slows down the passage of time. He needs the help of the young people he noticed hanging around the Shelterate building that acted as customs and immigration on his previous visit. These guides help adjust the time lost and gained by circuitous routes so that overall expected time progression is maintained.
THE GRADUAL has a tightly controlled narrative where some of the plot twists are as unexpected as the gradual itself. Some follow logically from the narrative but Priest is the kind of writer who will happily play with the minds of characters and readers. To explain here the themes that run through the archipelago would be to spoil the satisfaction of the reader as they work it out.
Alessandro developed a fascination with the islands of the Dream Archipelago from the moment he glimpsed the nearest from an attic window, even though the history of his country denied their existence. As a reader, I hope you will become equally fascinated by them. This is a thoroughly enjoyable novel.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Jan-2017

Return to top

Hannu Rajaniemi

THE QUANTUM THIEF by Hannu Rajaniemi

Rajaniemi is a Finnish scientist living and working in the UK and has had a number of short stories published. This is the first fruit of a three book deal landed on the basis of a 24-page sample.
It seems initially a strange and difficult book to get into. It opens with a professional thief, Jean le Flambeur, held in a strange glass prison where he is repeatedly pitted in competition against various entities - frequently replicas of himself - with death (and subsequent revival) as the penalty for losing. This is intended to lead to his eventual redemption. Then he is rescued by a woman from the outer solar system in a sentient spidership who takes him to Mars, where he had lived before under a different identity. Here he will be expected to pay for his rescue by committing a final crime.
It gradually becomes apparent that life in ‘the moving city of the Oubliette’ is rooted in an elaborate computer system referred to as exomemory which stores all data – the environment, senses, thoughts, everything. Individual personalities can be downloaded into reprinted bodies and can exchange memories with each other through encrypted channels. They are allowed time in these bodies on the basis of time spent downloaded into construction and maintenance machines and the like; can be resurrected if they die, and can return with new bodies and new identities. On the other hand, murder can be committed by scrambling the exomemory record of an individual, thus completely excising his or her personality.
One way of looking at this book is as a description of a future of amazing possibilities, a futuristic setting where personalities, bodies and memories are digital, changeable and fluid. This setup leads to new ways of looking at such issues as self-identity, individuality, personal privacy and even death. In fact, the reader is led into a maze where nothing is as it seems and it is almost impossible to determine what (or who) is real and what is not. At the same time, it is a story on a classic theme, a conflict between a thief and a detective, but in the kind of setting first created by William Gibson and progressed by the likes of Neal Stephenson and Greg Egan.
Whether it merits the fervent enthusiasm with which it has been greeted in some circles may in my view be debatable. There are a lot of advanced ideas to understand, some of which are only partially explained, if at all, so that a great deal is demanded of the reader. Nevertheless it is certainly an extraordinary piece of technical SF.

Reviewed by Michael Jones Oct-2010

Return to top

Robert Rankin

THE MECHANICAL MESSIAH AND OTHER MARVELS OF THE MODERN AGE by Robert Rankin

I should probably start by saying that it helps if you have read THE JAPANESE DEVIL FISH GIRL, as while this book is not exactly a sequel it is set in the same ‘universe’. That is, the War of the Worlds (and WW2) has happened, the world’s technology is basically steampunk, enlightened (literally) by Mr. Nikola Tesla’s new electricity, and we are regularly visited by Venusians and Jupiterians, or Jovians. Under the leadership of Winston Churchill the Martians were of course defeated in the first Worlds War, and we then went to Mars and committed genocide on the rest of the Martian race. . . Also, if the Rankin novels you have read previously have been from the Brentford Trilogy series (of which there are far more than three) and you’re expecting more of the exploits of John Omally and Jim Pooley, centred around the Flying Swan, you’re in for a surprise. While none of Bob’s books can really be said to be science fiction as we know it (Jim), he has clearly embraced the steampunk ethic and has really entered into the spirit of it. The main characters here are Cameron Brown, a private detective, whose nemesis is Commander Case of Scotland Yard; Alice Lovell – the Alice of Wonderland fame, who takes to the stage of the Electric Alhambra with her trained kiwi birds; Lord Andrew Ditchfield, the Alhambra’s owner, and Colonel Katterfelto, who has now acquired the talking monkey, Darwin, who first appeared in the previous novel. But we also meet Joseph Merrick, better known as The Elephant Man, Aleister Crowley (who requires no introduction), and a sinister, black-caped mystery figure who intends to take over the world and bring it to its knees in worship of him alone. Indeed, all worlds. But Mr. Bell has found the Ring of Moses, which the Beast needs in order to complete his dastardly plans, and much of the story concerns the Beast’s attempts to wrest it from him. In passing, we also meet Charles Babbage, who is responsible for the amazingly intricate workings of the Electric Alhambra, and Surgeon General Sir Frederick Treves, who looks after Joseph Merrick and tries to thwart his many rather malicious practical jokes. Not to mention The Travelling Formbys, so I won’t. (By the way, if the dates of some of the characters don’t seem to coincide, don’t worry about it. The author doesn’t.) Colonel Katterfelto has already constructed one Mechanical Messiah, in Wormcast, Arizona, but it failed to become imbued with divine energies as expected. Thanks to Darwin the citizens of Wormcast took it instead to be a demon employed by the Antichrist, and it all ended, Frankenstein-like, in blazing torches and flames. As a result he is reduced taking his Katterfelto’s Clockwork Minstrels to the stage, to join Alice’s ferocious kiwis. But he is not deterred: thanks to skilful writing, it turns out that a missing ingredient, essential to bringing his creation to life, is a form of gold called Magonian, found lying around only on the surface of Venus. So, of course, a hunting expedition to Venus is joined by the colonel and his monkey. Here Alice also has an encounter with a White Rabbit. Many adventures ensue, and it all ends, as you may expect, with a mighty battle between the Powers of Darkness and Light. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but if you enjoy a rollicking adventure tale with a good few laughs thrown in, this is for you! I can’t end, however, without a word of praise for the cover art, which in the case of both books is (of course) by the author. On this book in particular he has excelled himself, with a magnificent line drawing; and chapter headers, to boot.

Reviewed by David A Hardy Dec-2010

Return to top

WAITING FOR GODALMING by Robert Rankin

Oh dear. Robert Rankin has started repeating himself If you are a regular reader of his work you may think this is a silly statement, since much of his humour is based on repetition, running jokes, recurring characters. . . I have read all his books, I think. I got the 'Brentford Triangle' trilogy after his first talk to the Brum Group on 15 February 1985 (data courtesy William McCabe), and have built up my paperback library since his last (somewhat controversial) visit. The guy makes me laugh. 1 well remember the looks 1 got from the other passengers as I sat on the sundeck of the Eclipse cruise ship last July, chortling to myself. Well I had to cheer myself up, having seen nothing of the eclipse but a black cloud.
However, in several of his books (eg. THE BOOK OF ULTIMATE TRUTHS) he has a character called Cornelius Murphy, who has a very small friend called Tuppe. In THE MOST AMAZING MAN WHO EVER LIVED, God has closed down Hell. Etc. In several of the books one of the characters (sometimes Elvis) has a Guardian Sprout living in his head (well, you see, God ran out of people, so had to start using other creatures, ending up with vegetables. It's all quite logical.) In at least one book, only our heroes can see that some humans are really monstrous devils in disguise.
In this latest novel the main character is Icarus Smith, who encounters a very small man called Johnny Boy. And both Heaven and Hell have been closed down. And only they can see that there are monsters among us. Sound familiar?
Rankin goes further though. God is murdered (by his wife, Eartha, or his son Colin?), and another recurring character, Lazlo Woodbine, an archetypal detective who always works in the first person and only does four locations — his office, the bar, the alleyway and the rooftop — is brought in to solve the murder. Or is he really Icarus Smith's brother, under the delusion that he is Lazlo Woodbine?
If you want to find out, get this book. It's still a good read, and OK for a few laughs, but as you may have gathered, it's not as original as his earlier works

Reviewed by David A Hardy Nov-2000

Return to top

Rod Rees

INVENT-10N by Rod Rees

It is always good to see an author who is prepared to experiment, and to do it with relative success. So many avant garde novels fail at the first hurdle, which is to entertain the reader at the same time as playing with words, concepts and formats. One of the best in recent years is THE RAW SHARK TEXTS by Steven Hall.
The background to the story in INVERT-10N is fifteen years on from now and considering the current refugee status in Europe, scarily prophetic. Certain towns such as Blackpool and Scarborough have been given over to migrants or Gees. These have been fenced off from the rest of the country. UK citizens can go in, Gees cannot leave. Although life in the enclaves is tough, they are free from the constant surveillance the rest of the country has to put up with. Political correctness has gone mad. Just swearing or dressing inappropriately can earn demerits or bennies (Benign Index Score). Too many and you get punished. So to let your hair down, you visit the enclaves where surveillance is banned.
The two main characters are Jennifer Moreau and Sebastian Davenport. They are total opposites but are both keeping a journal. The former is the singer in a band – Jenni-Fur and the Joy Poppers. Jenni-Fur performs in the enclaves where she can dress provocatively and “diss” the government in the lyrics of her songs. She is a kind of futuristic punk. In her day-job, she is a journalist. Sebastian works for the government on the National Protection Agency. Jenni-Fur writes her journal on an old fashioned typewriter because there is no way that it can be hacked and her privacy violated. Sebastian uses conventional methods, such as a computer for his. Hers is full of politically incorrect comments and slang, his is written in proper English.
The event that takes them both to Scarborough is when Ivan Nitko, a Russian deportee, wins the World Stone Skimming Championship. Not remarkable in itself but the question of cheating is raised. Both Jenni-Fur and Sebastian are sent to investigate. Ivan is quite open. He won with Invent-10n. The device generates power using only water. This is almost free energy. Ivan, a recluse, appoints Jenni-Fur as his agent and publicist. Sebastian is instructed to get examples of the device so that government labs can dissect and reproduce them. Ivan is very happy for them to try. Ivan will supply as many units as are required for political concessions but he has to activate all units. All sides see an advantage and are willing to give concessions.
To separate the two opposing accounts of events, the journals are presented in different type faces, as if they were produced in the ways suggested. The extracts are interspersed with other items – security transcripts, news reports, propaganda, history texts and other items which together provide a snapshot of the future Rees has envisioned. Some of these enhance the book, others are over-wordy and boring. To have impact there should perhaps have been less of them. The other problem is that Jenni-Fur’s journal is highly spiced with slang and although this is meant to give street-cred to the writing, it is rather overwhelming, especially at the start.
This book is very mixed in its success. Some readers will be enthralled, others irritated by it. The vision of the future is bleak but indicative of the thinking of some sections of the population. Above all, this book is a brave attempt at being different and, like Jenni-Fur, Rees does not want to follow the herd.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Oct-2015

Return to top

Alastair Reynolds

BEYOND THE AQUILA RIFT by Alastair Reynolds

As this volume is billed as the Best of Alastair Reynolds, the expectation is that all the stories are good. In fact, they are excellent, and they are all science fiction.
Any writer of hard SF has a problem – how to get characters out of the solar system. In the old days, the most popular method was the ‘bullshit’ drive. Forget the physics, forget the technology, just put the spaceship into gear and go. While ramping up the warp factor might be fine for Star Trek, fiction writers these days try to think the problem through. Sometimes they stay with the physics we currently understand, and stick to sub-light mechanisms, or explore other ways of getting from place to place. In these stories, Reynolds has explored a number of techniques.
In many of Reynold’s novels, humanity has expanded out from the solar system and has divided into factions. Most use some kind of technology to increase their abilities but the Ultras have gone to extremes often becoming more machine that human. The Conjoiners have used technology to become almost a hive mind. In this universe, lighthuggers are the space ships of choice. They can travel at near the speed of light but never faster. They are powered by C(onjoiner)-drives. ‘Great Wall Of Mars’ takes the REVELATION SPACE time-line back to when the Conjoiners were feared and quarantined on Mars. The Great Wall was designed as a terraforming agent with a breathable atmosphere within it. The Conjoiners keep trying to escape and Nevil Clavain is sent to give them a final warning – if they try again, the Conjoiners will be wiped out. Those who have read the novels will know that this doesn’t happen. In ‘Weather’ the title character is a Conjoiner separated from the rest of her nest. She is rescued from a pirate ship. It is through her that we learn some of the secrets of the C-drive.
Two other stories are set in the same universe, using the same ship technology, though that is a minor part events. ‘Diamond Dogs’ involves a group persuaded that their skills are what is needed to conquer a strange artefact on a distant planet. The spire consists of a vast series of rooms through which you can only pass by solving a mathematical or spacial problem. Failure to do so results in death. ‘The Last Log Of The Lachrimosa’ takes the crew to a distant planet in search of salvage or alien artefacts – anything that can be made to turn a profit.
Any system that has an origin on Earth, tends to accept the concept that FTL is not possible. In ‘Thousandth Night’, the people who gather to share experiences at a reunion have each been travelling the universe for two hundred thousand years. They are actually all splinters of the same personality and the occasion is to merge experiences. Then Purslane realises that Burdock has related false memories as they suggest that he and Campion were in the same place at the same time. This story is set against the same background as Reynolds’ novel HOUSE OF SUNS.
The idea of the ramscoop to power space ships is a relatively well known one, with the engine gathering interstellar dust and thrusting it out the other end as a propulsion system. In ‘The Star Surgeon’s Apprentice’ Peter, the narrator, is desperate to get off station and takes a berth on the ramscoop, Iron Lady as apprentice to the surgeon. He is the only true human, as most of the crew are mechanically enhanced or are lobots, criminals whose independent function has been removed. Unfortunately for Peter, he finds it is a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire as he has signed on to the most notorious pirate ship in the sector.
Where the plot of the story needs FTL travel between star systems, the methods rely on discovered alien technology. The aliens themselves have long disappeared but the technology still works. In ‘Minla’s Flowers’, relatively small ships can travel the Waynet which acts like a fast-moving current between places. When Merlin finds himself thrown out of the Waynet, he heads for a nearby planet to affect repairs. Minla is a small girl when he arrives but when he discovers that the planet has only seventy years before a branch of the Waynet bisects and destroys the sun, he offers just enough technology to enable Minla’s people to develop the means to escape.
‘Beyond The Aquila Rift’ also uses alien technology. This time it is a network of Apertures. These are important when something goes wrong, and The Blue Goose ends up somewhere it isn’t meant to be, and so far off the main network that there may be a problem getting back. ‘Fury’ uses another, unexplained, method designated skip-space. The details are unnecessary as the story is about the bodyguard of the Emperor of the Radiant Commonwealth. He travels long distances between stars in order to discover the person behind the assassination attempt on the Emperor and at the same time discovers his origins. Although ‘Zima Blue’ is set against the background of a different universe, it is also an origin story. This time it is the artist, Zima, who tells a reporter of his search for his origins as he embarks on his final piece of conceptual art.
Of the remaining seven stories, all are far future science fiction of the highest calibre and although some of them would need space travel to get the protagonists to the place where the story takes place, it is largely irrelevant to the plot. Although many authors use different means to travel long distances in space, it is unusual to have so many explored in one volume.
Those who know Reynolds’ work will be delighted with this volume, any who don’t will find this a good place to begin exploring.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Dec-2016

Return to top

CENTURY RAIN by Alastair Reynolds

At one time there was a vogue for time travel novels, especially those that introduced paradoxes. When they were done well, they were great fun.
There is also a sub-genre of science fiction which deals with alternate histories.
Alastair Reynolds appears to do both, and neither. Verity Auger is an archaeologist. She explores a future Paris that is covered in ice. The Earth that we know has suffered a major climatic disaster. The problems that we have created in our own century escalated and to try and put things right, self replicating nano-machines were seeded into the atmosphere. At first, this seemed to work but the technology got out of hand and only people who were off world at the time, survived. These had split into two factions, the Slashers who embrace enhancements and nano-technology, and the Threshers who distrust machines they cannot see. Earth is now a very hostile place with the nano-machines, known as furies, readily attacking any living tissue. When an expedition to Paris goes wrong, Verity faces a choice – facing a charge of murder by negligence or going on a top secret mission. She chooses the latter.
Threading through the universe is a network of alien technology, the hyperweb that offers fast transit between stars. It is, so far, largely unexplored and the places of exit of the transit tunnels is largely unknown. At the end of some of them, though, have been discovered some very large objects that form shell around spaces large enough to hold planet/moon systems. A route has been found into one of these ‘anomalous large structures’ (ALS). Verity is to go there to retrieve some papers. She is the best qualified person for the job as the world inside the ALS is Earth in 1959. The exit is under Paris. On this Earth, the Second World War petered out in 1940.
Wendell Floyd is a native of this alternate world. He is a jazz musician and a private detective. Neither profession is going well. He is asked to investigate the death of a young woman. She fell from her apartment window. The police have decided it is suicide but her landlord suspects murder. Before her death, Susan White entrusted her landlord with a tin of papers and said her sister Verity would come and collect them. Susan is an agent from outside and has stumbled on some kind of plot. She is the link that throws Floyd and Verity together. They uncover a sinister plot by the Slashers that is world threatening.
At the start of the historical section, the prose felt a bit flat, although it was readily apparent that this was not quite the Europe that formed part of our past. This is partly because down-on-their-luck private eyes are a very familiar character type. However, it quickly picked up, especially once the link with the ‘future’ characters was hinted at and the strange looking children began to turn up. The depiction of this slightly skewed, late 1950s Paris is well done. It always amazes me how authors are able to create such detailed technological futures and make them sound reasonable. Ultimately, Reynolds has achieved two difficult things; to write convincingly about the past and the future simultaneously and to meld them together into a novel well worth reading.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Dec-2005

Return to top

This book has really stuck in my memory, which, considering the number of books I have been reading, is quite a feat! The plot in a nutshell, is that nanotechnology has ruined Earth. Verity Auger, an archaeologist, makes a disastrous field trip down to the planet from her space home, and to make amends, has to take part in a dangerous mission - trying out a backdoor worm hole into an unstable alien transit system (all is eventually explained fully!), thus ending up in Paris of the 1950’s. But is all as it seems - is this history as we know it or something weirdly different? There is a bit of everything in this book - love story, alternate history, hard SF terminology. It even reads like a kind of space opera at times, especially near the end, where there seem to be lots of spaceships rushing about, and chases, and characters being killed off then not killed off, and everything becomes political - to my mind the plot started to unravel a bit at this point and I had to start concentrating on what was going on!
The characters were very vividly drawn - the Paris-based central character is a bit of a jazz-playing, washed-up detective with no motivation in life, and Reynolds does a good job bringing him and the characters he gets mixed up with, such as Verity, nicely to life. I also liked the way the perspective switched between the two of them - rather than focussing too heavily on one side. Their eventual romance reads like something out of some old-fashioned love film - CASABLANCA maybe. A couple of characters however seemed to vanish rather disappointingly (whatever happened to his business partner, who disappears late on in the book?), but while this may or may not have been deliberate, it added nicely to the theme that the world as we know it may be fragile and unstable, and not what we are expecting.
In fact, Reynolds brings lots of ideas and themes into the book, which is why it is hard to fit it into a genre (though noir SF was mentioned somewhere, and that sounds quite apt), but his strong imagination is evident throughout. He does well to hold it all together and quite tightly too - apart from that bit towards the end there is no visible drifting off or digressions from the two main streams and the tension of the storyline, and my attention was held throughout. It is only my first of his books that I have read, so I cannot compare it to any of his others, but he has said it is a departure of sorts from his usual output (despite the usual themes of nanotechnology and frozen worlds, and the ‘all is not as it seems’ theme), so I will be interested to try some of his past (and future) work out. At 500+ pages it looks like a bit of a major undertaking, but don’t let the thickness of it put you off, it is a wonderful page-turner and an engrossing read.
Reviewed by Vicky Stock Dec-2005

Return to top

ON THE STEEL BREEZE by Alastair Reynolds

The trilogy is a strange creature and is constantly evolving. The original concept was to have three books all telling the same events but from radically different points of view. The framework was concise and enclosed.
Then readers and publishers wanted more of characters they had come to love. Authors, too, discovered more that they wanted to say. Sometimes it was to develop the characters in different directions, sometimes it was to produce more of the same. In some cases, the trilogy grew into a series some of which appeared to have no finite
ending and the characters remained ageless. Mostly, each book can be read in isolation, in any order. A variation is the trilogy that is one large novel which has to be split into separate tomes, not only because of the sheer volume of words but because the cost of
buying separate volumes is greater than what can be reasonably asked for one. The worst of these are fantasy and appear to end mid-sentence, leading to frustration and impatience as reader is denied the next instalment for a period of up to a year. Some writers, particularly SF writers are developing a new form of the trilogy. The potential for the range in time, distance and technology allows a more expansive view. The
volumes of the trilogy are set at different points on the projected time-line of a future history. Characters may or may not be continuous but there is a definite connection. Paul McAuley and Peter F. Hamilton have used this technique. So has Alastair Reynolds.
Reynolds’ earlier novel, BLUE REMEMBERED EARTH,
introduced the Akinya family. After the collapse of the ‘Western’ nations of the Northern Hemisphere, African entrepreneurs were able to take advantage of the gaps left behind. The Akinyas accumulated a huge fortune by investing in renewable technologies. In BLUE REMEMBERED EARTH younger members of the family embark on what is effectively a treasure hunt, following the clues left behind by their grandmother Eunice, in order to discover their inheritance. The novel introduced a remarkable
set of off-world societies. Elephants played a part in the psyche of the characters, as do the people who have chosen to adapt their bodies to an aquatic lifestyle. These are links between the Akinyas in the two novels.
In ON THE STEEL BREEZE technology has moved on. People, although not immortal, have increased their longevity greatly. Humanity has headed out for the stars, aiming to colonise a particular planet that would require generation ships to reach if life-spans were as short as they are now – Reynolds does not believe in the development of FTL drives or short-cuts through wormholes. Chiku Akinya has a choice. She can stay on
Earth and live a quiet, comfortable life, she can head out after Eunice Akinya’s ship with the prospect of finding a way to unlock the physics of space travel, or she can go with the colonists as part of the expeditionary ark to the planet of Crucible. The solution is for Chiku to be cloned, have her personality stripped down and rebuilt into the three new Chikus, and be in three places at once. Chiku Yellow, who stays on Earth, turned off
the link that exchanged knowledge with her counterparts. She would have remained in the situation of not knowing their fate indefinitely except that she is approached by one of the Aquatics who say they need her help.
Chiku Green, who went after Eunice’s ship, did return from her mission but is effectively dead. It is possible to retrieve her memories but only if Chiku Yellow is willing.
Once the process for sharing memories is unblocked, she is able to exchange memories with her other third. By this means we get an understanding of what is happening on the fleet ships heading for the Crucible. These are hollowed out asteroids and have been accelerating a long time. The problem is that they cannot slow them down. The original plan had been to work on the problem in flight but after an accident that destroyed one of the ships, the government banned further research into the problem.
Both Chikus have other issues to contend with. High level sentient AIs have been banned. Any found will be destroyed. This is to protect humanity from possible subjugation. They are good at hiding. The one that has survived will do anything to remain extant. The one in the solar system has sent a part of itself with the ark. Both parts not only are good at surviving but also keeping information from the humans they were originally designed to serve. Both Chikus have nasty surprises in store for them. They have one advantage, Eunice and her forward planning.
Reynolds has created a highly complex scenario which has the asset of being a very believable forecast of future human development with enough space from now to make it feasible. It also moves away from the Americanised future by considering a resurgence of Africa as a centre of civilisation. He is also a proponent of the school of science that keep their space exploration within the bounds of the Theory of Relativity. Travel beyond the Earth’s atmosphere takes time so other, more possible technological developments are envisaged to enhance the plausibility of what is an exciting thriller, the outcome of which is never certain. The book is beautifully written and the characters react naturally.
While it is not necessary to have read BLUE REMEMBERED EARTH, some of the subtleties here will be understood better if you have.
Enjoy.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Mar-2015

Return to top

POSEIDON’S WAKE by Alastair Reynolds

When I first picked up POSEIDON’S WAKE from amongst those offered for review at the BRUM Group meeting I was informed that it was the third in a series. The first volume entitled BLUE REMEMBERED EARTH being published in 2012 and the second ON THE STEEL BREEZE in 2013. Fortunately I had already read the previous two volumes in this series. In fact as I progressed through this book I found that as the current tale unwound Alastair Reynolds provided all I needed to know about the back story. This would ensure that new readers to the series would not be disadvantaged. As with the previous two this book is complete in itself. While it would be pleasant for readers to have first read the earlier books, not having done so would not in my opinion detract from enjoying this book. That is the mark of a master craftsman.
These books mainly follow the fortunes of the strong women of the Akinya family from the matriarch Eunice, also known as Senge Dongma, the lion-faced one, via her granddaughter Sunny, her daughters and the next two generations. In all these books action takes place on Earth, Mars and, as the Akinyas travel to and live on them, extrasolar planets. Interlinked with their exploits are those of the elephants that they care for as well as the robots, whose evolution on Mars Eunice accidently initiated. To add spice and mystery there is the Mandala structure discovered on Crucible, the first planet to be colonised and also the enormous alien robot spacecraft that both observe the Mandala and make human space travel perilous.
In POSEIDON’S WAKE the story follows Kanu and Ndege Akinya, Eunice’s descendants as they separately and then jointly respond to an enigmatic radio message received on Crucible. This was to all intents and purposes sent by Eunice from a third star a 150 light years away. Extra depth to the tale is added by a strong cast of supporting characters. Without a doubt Alastair Reynolds is a master at writing SF. The science is good. The characterisation is excellent and the story flows with plenty but not too much action. Overall this is individually a story, and a series well worth reading.

Reviewed by Jim Pearce Jul-2015

Return to top

REVELATION SPACE by Alastair Reynolds

It begins with archaeologist Dr Dan Sylveste and his fascination with a long dead alien race the Amarantin. the one- time inhabitants of the planet Resurgam. He is about to discover something that could change the course of history but before he can act he is captured when a coup sweeps across the planet. Meanwhile a huge and heavily armed ship crewed by militaristic cyborgs is bearing down on Resurgam having spent a lifetime at sublight speed crossing space to enlist his late father's help. Sylveste, or, more accurately, the software programme he carries in his head containing his father's knowledge, is the only one who can save their metamorphosing Captain. On its arrival the ship takes on a replacement crew member that is actually placed to serve the interests of a third, unknown group. None of those involved can anticipate the cataclysm that will result when they meet, a cataclysm that will sweep through space and could determine the ultimate fate of humanity.
That summary can do no more than provide an introductory taster to this massive and immensely complicated book. It is not one to read casually: historical events and background concepts put in brief initial appearances only to recur later when their importance becomes clearer and the author also employs a technique of stating that significant explanatory discussions have taken place between characters but without actually telling the reader what was said. This all helps to keep one turning the pages - it is like an intricate puzzle or detective mystery with the ending in doubt until, well, the end. About a third o f the way through I had felt that everything seemed to be coming together but then it became apparent that the story was actually about something completely different from what I had thought.
After another third I believed I could see where it was going, but there was still a great deal left to be worked out and explained. When I did reach the end I found that it was not only beyond anything I could have imagined but was also a step further than anything any other writer in my experience has done.
Bursting with advanced sf ideas and mind-blowing concepts, this is the sort of book that only comes along at rare intervals. Author Reynolds is an astronomer currently working at the European Space Agency and he puts his scientific expertise to brilliant use, not to mention what I suspect is a wide experience of reading the best in science fiction. After a number of short stories this is his first published novel and there is already at least one sequel in the pipeline. Work some overtime, cut down on the drink, take out a loan, do whatever you have to do to get the dosh, but BUY THIS BOOK

Reviewed by Michael Jones May-2000

Return to top

REVENGER by Alastair Reynolds

I am told that this is a Young Adult (YA) novel, but as so often before I can’t find any information to confirm this. However, the main characters are two young girls, only one of which is onstage for most of the book, and there is no sex or bad language (but plenty of violence!), so I suppose this is probably the case. (It is interesting that the author chooses to have a female lead, but I have noticed that Stephen Baxter has also done so in recent years, so possibly this is some sort of nod at political correctness? Whatever, in this case it works well.) The publisher’s blurb states that it is ‘perfect for fans of Firefly, Peter F. Hamilton and Star Wars’. I’m sure Peter can speak for himself, and I have never seen much of Firefly, but I really can’t see any similarity at all to Star Wars, apart from a charismatic but evil leader – in this case also female and known as Bosa Sennen. Universally feared, Bosa is effectively a pirate and seems to have no redeeming features, lurking in her stealth-protected, lightsail-powered ship, the Nightjammer while others raid ‘baubles’; tiny worlds with a ‘swallower’ (presumably a black hole) at their heart to provide gravity, for valuable alien artifacts, relics and technologies. She and her crew then swarm over the hapless ship, killing anyone who gets in their way, and make off with their plunder.
The two girls are Adrana and Arafura Ness, the latter, later known simply as Fura, being the younger and the main character. They lead boring, upper-class lives and crave adventure – which they find in spades when, hoping to save their family from bankruptcy, they run away from home with their robot ‘nurse’, Paladin, and join the crew of Captain Pol Rackamore’s ship, the Monetta’s Mourn. Communication in space, or ‘The Empty’ as it is known, is either by ‘squawk’, the equivalent of radio, or via ‘skulls’, again of alien origin and containing flickering lights, which are sometimes able to contact the skulls on other ships. It takes a special talent to ‘read the bones’, but both girls find that they have this, so are employed in this capacity by Captain Rackamore. Despite initial hostility, Fura befriends Prozor, who is the bauble-reader onboard, and she features strongly in later chapters.
The universe of REVENGER is a strange and unfamiliar one. There are fifty million worlds in the Congregation, but ‘a shifting, shimmering purple twilight was all that remained of the Old Sun’s energies’. Make of that what you will. Far, far in the future, our galaxy has passed through waves of alien conquest, or ‘Occupations’, in which empires have risen and fallen, but humanity still survives amongst the rubble and ruins of ancient civilisations. Amongst these are the baubles, and most humans live in the hope of striking a really valuable hoard which will make their fortunes, despite the considerable risks of raiding a bauble, which are surrounded by layers of protection and are only ‘open’ for a specific period of time before closing again, trapping anyone left inside.
Having successfully done this with one, the Monetta’s Mourn is boarded and raided by Bosa Sennen, who mercilessly kills the captain and many crew, and captures Adrana to become her own bone-reader. Fura hides away and escapes, promptly swearing eternal revenge upon Bosa. From this point on, everything in the book changes. From being a rollicking adventure it takes on a darker aspect, with Fura transformed from a sweet teenager to a hard- hearted avenging angel who will let nothing stop her self-appointed crusade. There are many surprises along the way, during which ambiguity creeps in; nothing is as clear-cut as it once seemed and even Bosa Sennen may not be who she originally appeared to be . . .
The author has to some extent developed a language that has evolved, along with everything else. This I felt was perhaps the least successful aspect of the novel. For instance, he uses ‘lungstuff’ for air and ‘squint-time’ for sleep. But given that apart from this the characters seem to use pretty standard English, I was not convinced that these small changes were necessary. Obviously to change the language too much could become tedious and confusing, and I suppose these do help to suggest a future environment, but I’m not sure about them. However, this is a minor criticism, and overall, YA or not, this is an exciting and often gripping read, and up to Reynold’s usual standard.

Reviewed by David A Hardy Dec-2016

Return to top

SLOW BULLETS by Alastair Reynolds

This is a novella, not a novel, so quite a quick read. It opens near the end of a vast war which has affected hundreds of planets and solar systems. The main character is a conscripted soldier, Scurelya Timsuk Shunde, known (fortunately) as ‘Scur’. As an aside, I expect you have noticed, as I have, how many stories these days have a female lead; Stephen Baxter for one seems especially keen on this. I have nothing against this – we have had decades when macho males took the lead by default – though to my mind it does get a bit silly when people start talking about a female Dr Who or even James Bond!
Anyway, after a ceasefire Scur is captured by a four-man enemy sweep squad, headed by the sadistic Orvin. Orvin injects a ‘slow bullet’ into her thigh, from where it will make its slow way through her body (hence the title). The bullets contain a transponder, and can be made to explode, but they also contain and store masses of information, which can be transmitted when required. Every soldier already has one of these inside as a way of keeping tabs on them, but this one is designed to hurt like hell and to keep burrowing until it reaches Scur’s heart. “Why?” she asks. Orvin lets out a little laugh. ‘Why not?”
After they have left she cuts out the bullet, with a great deal of pain, and vows to get her revenge on Orvin. She passes out from the pain, and when she wakes she finds herself in some sort of capsule or ‘egg’. Her leg appears to have healed and she feels no pain. The capsule is one of many in a long corridor which curves up and out of sight in both directions. Later she finds that this ‘wakening’ has been experienced by many people. All the capsules contained someone who had taken part in the war, and it showed what side they had been on, Central or Peripheral, what their rank and service history had been, and the names of their home worlds. It appeared that they were all being sent to a world called Tottori, of which Scur had heard.
She begins to meet people who take fright upon meeting her, and a fight breaks out. When calm is restored it transpires that the people are crew on a military transport or ‘skipship’, the Caprice – a converted luxury starliner, now operated by the Peacekeeper authority. But it is also a prison ship, and the prisoners (“Dregs”) should not be coming awake as they are. Scur protests that she is a soldier, so should not be there. They can only agree that some sort of mistake has been made. . . Their leader is called Prad, and he and Scur eventually form a kind of friendship, or at least an alliance.
Through a window a planet can be seen, but it cannot be Tottori. In fact, all attempts to identify it, and the surrounding area of space, fail. While Prad is showing her scenes from the ship on his ‘slate’, Scur thinks she sees a glimpse of Orvin, and again vows to find him. In order to restore some order between waking prisoners and crew, Scur and Prad sound an alarm signal, claiming that the ship is about to blow up and unless they stop fighting Scur won’t allow Prad to make the core safe. Eventually this works, and the people in the ‘rings’ sort out their differences. But there is still the greater problem of finding where they are in space, and what world is below them. When they finally do so it is part of a greater surprise! Meanwhile Scur has definitely identified Orvin among the passengers, but he is successfully hiding himself. What happens in the rest of this book is exciting and often surprising. Slow bullets play a great part in this, but in unexpected ways. To a large extent this is a story of survival, and of the human will to stay alive, no matter what the odds against them.

Reviewed by David A Hardy Jun-2017

Return to top

TERMINAL WORLD by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds has become famous for his far-ranging space operas, but here he eschews this broad approach to set his latest novel on Earth. Some tens of millennia in the future it would seem to have suffered one or more quite major catastrophes, one result being to make it much colder than before.
The story opens in (or rather, on) Spearpoint, a vast and mysterious structure reaching right through the atmosphere and into space. Various communities cling to different levels on the outside of this structure, apparently existing in zones where the basic fabric of reality changes from place to place, altering the way in which both machines and living nervous systems are able to function - or not, as the case may be. Quillon (he has no other name) is forced to flee from Spearpoint where he has been living under an assumed identity and becomes an exile in the world at large where he and his escort encounter skullboys, carnivorgs and tectomancers before falling in with The Swarm, a military community living on a fleet of airships. They find that zones of reality are changing everywhere, placing the Earth and its entire population in danger.
Eventually Swarm, taking Quillon with them, find their way to Spearpoint and he is able to set in motion a process which, hopefully, will undo whatever previous disaster has left the Earth the way it is and lead to the return of normalcy.
Integral to this is the nature of Spearpoint itself, and the conclusion the astute reader has reached about it, based on several clear hints, proves to be only partially correct. This is just one of several issues, some major and some relatively minor, which remain unresolved. Instead of dealing with these questions head-on the story has become complicated by incidental details which are introduced from time to time with little or no explanation, as if in the hope of keeping the story interesting.
As a consequence, the book comes to an end after having seemed to have gone on far too long, without coming to a proper conclusion. Even the future of Quillon, whose destiny the story is founded upon, remains in doubt. It is a tendency I have noted in this author sometimes - although, I hasten to add, by no means always - to leave things unfinished in this fashion. Perhaps he was planning a sequel, or perhaps merely leaving the opportunity for one. Either way, the result is rather unsatisfactory. It is good, certainly, but it could have been better.

Reviewed by Michael Jones Mar-2010

Return to top

Adam Roberts

ADAM ROBOTS by Adam Roberts

The difficulty with reviewing short story collections is usually that you aren't reviewing one story. Occasionally there will be a theme that you can latch onto that helps categorise what you have just read so that you can cover more than one story at a time or, even more rarely there will be a sequence to the stories and plot lines and characters will carry from on to the next. The least you can hope for is that many of them will be from the same sub-genre or written in the same style. None of that is true here. You would be hard pressed to find a more diverse collection from one writer than this. Not content with changing sub-genre from one story to the next, Roberts changes style and theme frequently if not with every story. For example, the title story (there is one, it's not just a play on the author's name) is a robot story. Except they're not really robots. And it's a variation on the "Garden of Eden" tale. Only it's turned on its head. I know that doesn't give much away but it's only 11 pages and there's not a whole lot you can say without giving away too much.
Here you have two dozen stories ranging from one page to fifty in length covering a different sub-genre of science fiction every time - possibly more than one per story and with a few odd variations that you might not expect. All but the odd one are at least well done. Here you have the story of a space-going dynasty told in verse, a couple of time (travel?) stories - one about communicating with the past, another explaining how you can camouflage a disaster and the truth about nuclear weapons - one step further than steampunk or an artificial intelligence that is really a … No, that gives away a little too much … how Macbeth could have gone if they hadn't cheated on the prophecies, why Copernicus was wrong, Neanderthals in space... and many others. There is the obvious failure - an attempt to make something of a nursery rhyme although there is something of the Philip K Dick on drugs about it and an oddity at the end that I still don't get the point of. Only two of the stories are new in this collection but all the others have appeared in collections (often from small presses) rather than magazines.
It's hard to make an overall judgement on the collection but, apart from a mis-step or two, this is all good stuff with new and interesting ideas.

Reviewed by William McCabe May-2015

Return to top

BÊTE by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts is unusual among SF writers in that he doesn’t seem to indulge in trilogies, series or even consistent sub-genre. He’s been through the likes of space opera, steampunk, dystopia, and many other styles but never really settled on one. Whatever he tries, he’s usually pretty good at it and this is no exception. It’s not perfect but what is? It’s fun, it’s interesting, it has new ideas and reworks old ones.
This is the story of Graham Penhaligon in a near-future changing world. The changes have begun before the story starts. At the beginning Graham is delayed, briefly, in the slaughtering of one of his cows – he is a dairy farmer and trade isn’t good- when the cow complains. This isn’t any great surprise to Graham. He’s been used to talking farm animals for a while. An animal rights organisation has been implanting animals with a computer chip that either gives the animals the ability to speak for themselves or just provides a pre-programmed A.I. with an animal voice box. Which of these you believe tends to depend on which side of the animal rights debate you’re on. With the slaughter of this cow, Graham becomes famous as the last person to slaughter a talking animal. When the court cases are done he becomes either a hero of the people or a war criminal. Again, depending on your point of view. The country passes a new law to recognise the rights of talking animals and the changes really begin. Someone creates a form of tank- grown meat that makes meat production by any other means virtually redundant. Supposedly intelligent animals take over the countryside and human life moves into walled cities. Graham goes from struggling farmer to semi-legal travelling butcher to tramp in a few years. Just when he has got as low as he possibly could he starts getting messages from an animal leader called “The Lamb” who has a proposition for him.
The ethical issues covered and the science that goes along with it are pretty well done and make for a very interesting story. The great failing comes in Roberts’ idea of humour. This seems to rely on the idea that dropping references to recent films etc. into the text is funny. I suppose there are a lot of people that like that sort of thing but, somehow, it never really worked for me. I suppose you can’t have everything.
Reviewed by William McCabe Apr-2015

Return to top

SALT by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts is a new writer (certainly to me), but sadly there are no details about him in this book. (Perhaps we could get him to come and talk to the Brum Group, then we'd know more?) Peter Hamilton has written: "Adam Roberts has got what it takes" and "A fascinating concept, deftly executed", while someone (at Gollancz?) has said "SALT is a novel of remarkable power, intense beauty and profound insight. In its evocation of an alien world it compares to nothing less than DUNE." Now that is going a bit far. . . But what did I think of it? You ask.
By pure coincidence I had just re-read Eric Frank Russell’s THE GREAT EXPLOSION, after nearly 40 years. Remember 'myob'? I saw definite parallels as I read SALT. Parties of star-travellers, cast adrift from Earth, and each going their separate ways and evolving their own individual civilisations, laws (or lack of them), sexual mores, ways of interacting with strangers (or not).
The main difference is that while in the Russell book they are on different planets, in SALT they are on the same planet. A world of desert, with very little water, and what there is, very saline. Hence the title, of course. On the first page I read: "Sodium is what stars are made of." Really? And I always thought they were composed chiefly of hydrogen and helium in various proportions. It goes on "Sodium is the .metal, curved into rococo forms, that caps the headpiece and arms of God's own throne." (How does the author know that?) I hope it never rains in heaven, as sodium bums when wet -- as the author himself points out.
The book starts with many pages of pure narrative, no dialogue, which is unusual and not normally recommended. However, it sets the scene, and we realise that throughout, the story is told by the two leaders, Petja and Barlei, of their respective cities — Als and Senaar. There are other cities, but they seem to be under the influence of one or the other of those two, which hold diametrically opposed views on most things. It is difficult to see, in the relatively short time these people have been away from Earth, how they could grow so far apart that often they don't even understand each other. To me, this book is mainly about religion, and the way in which widely disparate cultures may yet still each righteously claim God as being on their side, even when fighting wars and breaking Commandments by killing each other. . . One may see parallels with the situation in Ireland, or Israel, or - you name it. I didn't find it all that profound, but to be fair, it isn't a bad book for a first novel, it is well-written, and reasonably original, at least in parts, and I suspect that the author feels strongly about his subject-matter. It will be interesting to see what he does next.
So, worth a try.

Reviewed by David A Hardy Oct-2000

Return to top

THE MATRIX DERIDED /STAR WARPED by Adam Roberts

(Note – with pages smaller than usual these books are much shorter than the page counts would suggest.) I have put these two together because they are the same kind of thing. The contrived authorship conceals the identity of Adam Roberts, literary expert and writer of scholarly books as well as several well-received SF novels. These however are something else – parodies of well-known film series (obviously).
Both start reasonably well and straightforwardly, picking up on the basic storyline of THE MATRIX and STAR WARS respectively but introducing various satirical jokes and puns, especially with names, varying from amusing to excruciating. For example, who could fail to either laugh or groan when reading of the pilot Hand Someman and his sidekick Masticatetobacco. (Well, I could actually.) As the narratives progress however, they deviate farther and farther from the original as the author is unable to resist introducing his own take on the story.
In the case of THE MATRIX this is not so bad and the eventual conclusion might be regarded by some as an improvement – certainly a simplification. With STAR WARS, on the other hand, he appears to lose the plot completely (in both senses) introducing an unjustified series of cultural and SF references – some much more obscure than others – and going off at a completely new tangent.
This is not helped by his choice to present the segments of the saga in the order in which the films appeared, rather than in the order of internal chronology, which I would have thought the obvious thing to do. As a result, it becomes painfully obvious that it has ended in the middle (twice).
Also, one gains the impression that he ran out of steam, cramming the last three segments together into fewer pages than any one of the first three. This is true of THE MATRIX also, where the first film gets two-thirds of the book.
To my mind, the whole approach here is wrong. The most successful parodies present a completely new and original story ‘in the style of’ and work best at quite a short length, as evinced by, for example John Sladek and Dave Langford to name but two. Trying to follow the original storyline while at the same time reconstructing it so as to provide an enhanced basis for mockery does not work but merely leaves the reader trying to relate what is written here to what he already knows and the result is both disappointingly tedious and tediously disappointing.
If you feel you must read these, go ahead, but I would not particularly recommend that you do.

Reviewed by Michael Jones Aug-2005

Return to top

Kim Stanley Robinson

FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN by Kim Stanley Robinson

One of the original reasons why people wrote SF was to provide a vehicle for dire warnings. Then, with fewer books to choose from, they reached more people. The problem today is that the warnings can get buried in the morass of words of the shelves of the bookshops. In FORTY SIGNS OF RAIN, Robinson chooses the theme of global warming. The setting is America today.. The principal characters are scientists. Anna Quibler works for the National Science Foundation which hands out grants to promising research projects, Frank Vanderwal is one of her programme officers. Her husband, Charlie, works from home and looks after the children. He drafts environmental policy for a senator.
There is concern about rising sea levels, but it is deliberately being ignored – there are not enough votes in it. Even when freak storms threaten Washington, it seems that the evidence is still going to be swept under the carpet.
Labelled, science fiction, it seems all too possible that this is the real situation. Robinson is not so much providing a cynical view of the situation but exposing the ostrich-like qualities of power. There is a lot of scientific jargon in the book which may put off a lot of readers, but it should be read – by everyone.
Then they should go out and lobby their respective governments.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Jul-2005

Return to top

Eric Frank Russell

WASP by Eric Frank Russell

This is the first of the (relatively) new Gollancz SF Collectors’ Editions that I’ve read. I can only say ‘Hurrah!’ for Orion and that nice chappie who runs the SF side.
The Collectors’ Editions are bringing back many good (not to mention concise - whatever happened to slender books - the same that happened to slender fans presumably - self indulgence) out of print books. Fabulous. I do wonder why, however. Not why they’re reprinting good books, but why they’ve chosen quite this format. The SF Masterworks has apparently the same mission.
Many excellent books have been rediscovered and produced at a quite reasonable price with iffy to superb cover art. So what is the point of the Collectors’ Editions? Presumably not-quite-masterworks in the traditional bright yellow colours and at quite a substantial price increase. Eh?
Most, if not all, BSFG members are old enough to have a sneaking affection for the old Gollancz yellow jackets, easily spotted on library shelves.
In the same way, most of us already own the books being reprinted. I have at least half of the books advertised on the back of this particular book (including a very tatty copy of WASP). Why would people without this residual affection pay £10 or more for (admittedly good) books with no artwork when great books with good artwork are available for £6 to £7 from the same publisher? Oh well, as we have observed over the years, the ways of the marketing department are strange. Perhaps SF writers ought to examine this mindset when looking for ideas for aliens instead of the Japanese. I seem to be rambling. Sorry.
So, WASP. I like this book. It’s not one of those that I’ve reread often over the years and it was a pleasant rediscovery. It’s about James Mowry, recruited to be a ‘wasp’ in the war against the Sirians. Luckily James was born in Masham, capital city of Diracta - the Sirian home planet. With the removal of his wisdom teeth, pinned back ears and a few pints of purple dye, James Mowry is able to play the part of a native-born Sirian and do it well enough to fool the Sirians. This is just as well because, though Earth is technologically superior, the Sirians have ten times the population and without the action of ‘Wasps’ such as James, the Sirians will win the war through sheer weight of numbers.
James’ job is to cause as much disruption as possible ‘behind the lines’. He is to occupy the effort and attention of as much of the Sirian war machine as possible, turning their attention to quelling an initially imaginary internal rebellion instead of focussing on the war with Earth. As the recruiter says, ‘.. .in suitable circumstances, one can obtain results monstrously in excess of the effort.’
How James completes his mission is fascinating. If you thought about it you could come up with some of the ideas. Eric Frank Russell’s achievement was to think of them, put them together in a splendidly entertaining book and yet manage to make the war seem petty and ridiculous. This seems to me to be an anti-war book much in the tradition of Bill the Galactic Hero.
James Mowry isn’t a character with great depth; what he does is far more important than what he thinks or feels. He’s a reluctant volunteer; no hero, merely a pawn. Similarly, the Sirians are just (purple) people, worried about their day-to-day concerns, only vaguely bothered about the war. The immediate evil for the Sirians is the Kaitempi, the secret police. For both the Sirians and for James, their own officialdom is more dangerous than the enemy.
This book was written in 1957. Apart from the computer system working on punched cards (I vaguely remember punched cards), this book is as relevant today as it ever was. Go out and buy it if you don’t already own it. The extra £3 cost for the book isn’t really OK but at least you get integral bookmarks and a few of these scattered through your bookcase will brighten it up.

Reviewed by Yvonne Rowse Sep-2000

Return to top

Ken Russell

MIKE & GABY’S SPACE GOSPEL by Ken Russell

Ken Russell the enfant terrible of the British film industry has turned his talent to this unusual novel setting the key events of the Christians new testament into a hilarious pastiche. It treats with total irreverence the myth that some people misguidedly believe as the truth and puts a rocket up the rear end of the people that believe such books as this are heresy.
Mike and Gaby two robots from a long proud lineage of Rossum’s Universal Robots were playing god and delivering to earth the first two human beings, Adam and Eve, as experimental prototypes to help in the search for a cure for their incurable disease ‘rust’. Enter another robot roughly identified as Satan! From here on in everything goes haywire. Nothing, to use the term, is "Sacred" anymore. The technical marvels of the robots help to perpetrate the so- called miracles that the son of Mary and Joseph performs as he plays the son of god A.K.A Mike & Gaby.
This short novel, somewhere between Science Fiction and a film script, is a breath of fresh air that at long last deals in a humorous fashion with the con of the Christian religion. This should be compulsory reading for all the religious fundamentalists out there, and for every one else a laugh at the original Fantasy book ever written. Ken Russell has never been one to take into account good taste and I look forward to a full-length novel from what is an auspicious debut.

Reviewed by Chris Chivers Oct-2000

Return to top

Carrie Ryan

THE DEAD-TOSSED WAVES by Carrie Ryan

It is very difficult to make zombies sexy. Instead of trying to, Carrie Ryan concentrates on the burgeoning emotions of her human characters. Since this is written for the young adult market, do not expect steamy sex scenes. Compared with some of the offerings in the bookshops, this is very chaste.
This is a post apocalyptic novel. The event that changed the world was The Return when the dead, known as Mudo, started walking. They are dormant until they smell living flesh. Then all they want to do is infect the living with their condition. Bites are invariably fatal.
Gabry is an adolescent who lives in an enclave of the living with her mother. One night, she and a group of friends defy the rules to venture outside the barrier to a derelict fairground. She is encouraged by her best friend Cira and Cira’s brother, Catcher. Just as Catcher is about to give Gabry her first kiss, they are attacked one of the Mudo, the returned dead. Two of the teenagers are killed, Catcher is bitten. Gabry escapes back inside the barrier but the others are rounded up and sentenced to join the Recruiters whose job is to hunt down Mudo. Gabry is torn between wanting to stay safe and owning up to being with her friends. Hormones take over and she decides to brave the outside again to find Catcher, expecting him to be dying. Instead, she discovers that he is a very rare person, an Immune. The bite did not kill him and now the Mudo cannot sense him. Rescuing Cira, they venture into the Forest of Hands and Teeth. During the flight, Gabry learns about her own origins which are not what she thought.
The tensions and anxieties of living in a world like this are well drawn and the obsessions of adolescents are well handled. There is, however, a bit too much of the
teenage angst about who she fancies most – Catcher or Elias – perhaps a bit too much even for the readership the book is aimed at, as Gabry never really gets beyond the tentative kissing stage.

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan Aug-2010

Return to top